“Oh, you hate me now. But age will teach you how great was my love…”
Having interviewed Ayesha Antoine prior to the opening night, I could only anticipate what was in store for this production. Written by acclaimed poet and playwright, Marcus Gardley and set in nineteenth century New Orleans before the civil war, this was a time where social hierarchy was based on gender and skin colour, and where voodoo seemed to be the unspeakable solution to everyone’s problems.
The House That Will Not Stand presents Beatrice Albans (Martina Laird) a free woman of colour and the ‘Placée’ turned recent widow of powerful white man Lazare Albans (Paul Shelley). Along with their three free-born daughters, Agnès (Ayesha Antoine), Maude Lynn (Danusia Samal) and Odette (Ronke Adekoluejo) – who are mourning their father’s sudden mysterious death. With laws changing as quickly as they were made, Beatrice, her three daughters and their enslaved servant Makeda (Tanya Moodie) have to consider what their future holds with the possibility of their freedom, money and power being taken away from them. What follows are secrets, lies and realities being unravelled (literally through the mansion walls) with consequences affecting the whole family.
With a mystified atmosphere among the remarkable, yet simply picturesque set design, there was already a sense of eeriness before the play began. Makeda and La Veuve (Michele Austin) set the tone as La Veuve accuses Beatrice of murdering Lazare. Makeda being “loyal” to her mistress does not reveal anything…without a price, prompting a domino effect of questioning and the real reason behind certain decisions made within the Albans’ household.
The cast of this production are well suited to their characters exuding romance, heartache, innocence and strength through their well captured Creole accents and engaging stage presence. Martina Laird is well matched in her role as the fearsome and passionate Madam Beatrice. Her charisma and overprotective persona towards her three daughters is overwhelming, and rightfully so, considering she does not want them to follow in her life’s footsteps, no matter how glamorous it looked to outsiders and the stability that it offered. Laird dominates whenever she is on stage. Her sultry expressions and vengeful outbursts have you wrangling between empathising and despising her. But it’s her final monologue which is definitely one you will not forget – delivered with such powerful emotion, it brought goosebumps.
Antoine, Samal and Adekoluejo work well as the three sisters who together try to escape the oppression of their mother for life on the outside. As their mother continues to suffocate them within the household, they pull further away as they strive to secure their independence. However, the sister’s distinct personalities and conflicting views on how their freedom must be attained, along with the difference in their skin shading causes the bond the once close sisters held to disintegrate. Underlying racial comments are made toward one another in heated confrontations; the girls the epitome of Gardley’s examination of the position of free women of colour in New Orleans, which though unique at the time and insightful for the audience to watch, still has a huge impact today.
The ghostly moments throughout the play work with New Orleans’ infamous reputation associated with the supernatural and all things voodoo. There are some real jumpy moments as Lazare’s ghost informs the family he has unfinished business with them. But it is the tackling of the complexity of slavery, freedom, spirituality, race and distinct definitions of culture and beauty during that era which makes the play so relevant today. The subject matter still being brought up time and time again with the new generation of artists and writers proving just how crucial it is to remind society that this history is, and will always be important, however it is portrayed.
Though every scene has some sort of intensity, the clever quips and witty dialogue between characters manages to lighten the often tense mood, without losing effectiveness. First seen in California earlier this year, Gardley’s scriptwriting and Tricycle Theatre Artistic Director, Indhu Rubasingham’s production is well collaborated; the characters have been directed to use the space well, making sure the focus does not diminish as they switch between scenes whilst characters remain on stage in the shadows. If anything, this adds to the type of dynamic the family has, with secrets being revealed one by one as they emerge from the shadows. With an explicit connection between the history and his own family, Gardley is able to take his own experiences and uncover the underlying narratives about race and freedom whilst still confronting the repercussions of the Americanisation of Louisiana.
A beautifully suited cast and poetically written script, The House That Will Not Stand is a well-presented production worthy of everyone to see.