The House that will not Stand

The House that will not Stand

The House that will not Stand

Written by Marcus Gardley
Directed by Patricia McGregor
A co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre
Main Season · Thrust Stage
January 31–March 23, 2014
World Premiere

One of “10 reasons for theater lovers to leave New York in 2014”—Time magazine

Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Berkeley Rep proudly presents the world premiere of a new play commissioned from an Oakland native. Sensuous, witty, heartbreaking, and uplifting—The House that will not Stand by Marcus Gardley unearths a story about free women of color in 1836 New Orleans, where black Creole women entered into common-law marriages with rich white men. But the house that Beartrice built—on a foundation of wealth, freedom, and secrets—threatens to collapse after her man mysteriously dies and her three unwed daughters realize that his money could cost them the people they love. Directed by Patricia McGregor, The House that will not Stand is humorous and gripping family drama told in a rich and lyrical river of words.

The House that will not Stand was commissioned by Berkeley Rep and developed in The Ground Floor, Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work.

Creative team

Marcus Gardley · Playwright
Patricia McGregor · Director
Paloma McGregor · Choreographer
Antje Ellermann · Set Design
Katherine O’Neill · Costume Design
Russell H. Champa · Lighting Design
Keith Townsend Obadike · Sound Design & Original Compositions
Harriett D. Foy · Vocal Arrangements & Additional Original Compositions
Dave Maier · Fight Director
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Karen Szpaller · Assistant Stage Manager
Madeleine Oldham · Resident Dramaturg
Tara Rubin, CSA · Casting
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Lindsay Levine, CSA · Casting assistant
Merri Sugarman, CSA · Casting assistant
Kaitlin Shaw, CSA · Casting assistant
Scott Anderson · Casting assistant
Kimberly Mohne Hill · Dialect coach
Ajayi Jackson · Music consultant

Cast

Joniece Abbott-Pratt · Odette
Harriett D. Foy · Makeda
Lizan Mitchell · Beartrice
Petronia Paley · La Veuve / Marie Josephine
Flor De Liz Perez · Maude Lynn
Ray Reinhardt · Lazare
Tiffany Rachelle Stewart · Agnès

“[One of] 10 reasons for theater lovers to leave New York in 2014…With 12 Years a Slave one of the top contenders for Oscar nominations, Marcus Gardley’s new play about a free woman of color in 1836 New Orleans could be arriving at just the right cultural moment. Berkeley’s enterprising resident theater (where Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen first performed their current Broadway double bill, Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land) is co-producing the play with New Haven’s Yale Rep, where it will transfer in April.”—Time magazine

“In The House that will not Stand, the Oakland native unearths a slice of the rich and eccentric history of New Orleans, specifically the 19th century practice of plaçage and the prestige it gave to a class of aristocratic free women of color…Gardley’s drama transports Lorca’s classic tale The House of Bernarda Alba into the heart of Creole culture. This epic is set in 1836, not long after the city was the scene of the largest slave rebellion in American history. During this period, free black women could make common law marriages to wealthy white men. If the men died, they could even inherit grand houses and dazzling fortunes. Before the Louisiana Purchase, they were said to own most of the city…Alas, Beartrice Albans (a formidable Lizan Mitchell) has no such luck. When her man, Lazare (Ray Reinhardt), passes away, there is a white wife waiting to steal her house and the dowries—and, therefore, the futures of Beartrice’s three daughters—right out from under Beartrice…Gardley has written some dazzling bursts of bon mots with which Beartrice entrances her foes, and Mitchell wields wit like a rapier.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group

“There’s nothing like a steaming pot of gumbo to spice up a play—especially the way Harriett D. Foy prepares it in the world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s The House that will not Stand…Singing ingredients at her witchly cauldron in the African-derived rhythms of Creole voodoo, Foy’s household slave Makeda stirs as much gumption into the show as she does into that pot…Foy’s magnetically plainspoken and voodoo-infused Makeda is the slave of Lizan Mitchell’s elegant, peremptory Beartrice. Beartrice’s wealthy live-in lover Lazare has just died (Ray Reinhardt is a delightfully vital, opinionated corpse), and she has to secure the futures of their three ‘ripe’ teenage daughters…Sex, slavery, mothering and a clash between the new and the old are prime ingredients…multiple plot strands and rich mix of history, ghosts, gorgeous flights of rhetoric and music…vivid flights of language…razor-sharp verbal cuts…Gardley’s skill in depicting racial issues is dramatically rich…House is invigoratingly evocative.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Witty dialogue, an electric cast, and hearty servings of lust, murder, voodoo, jealousy, and intrigue in the Big Easy…a dazzling and rousing experience!”—East Bay Express

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

About a dozen years ago or so (I’m at the age where a “dozen” simply means more than I can remember), I was talking to my friend and colleague, James Bundy. James is the artistic director of Yale Rep and chair of the legendary Yale Drama Department. Every year or so (could be a dozen), I pepper him with questions about talented, new artists in his program that I should maybe keep an eye on. “There’s this kid named Marcus Gardley,” he said enthusiastically, “really good writer. From your neck of the woods. You should definitely check him out.”

It turns out I wasn’t the only one with a watchful eye. Marcus came out of grad school and never looked back. Productions of his plays started appearing all over the country. Producers of every stripe were lining up to talk to him about a host of projects. We joined the procession by offering him a commission and, after he happily accepted, we waited for a draft of a new play. And waited…

Now, it’s not uncommon that a playwright might take a long time to gestate an idea, but as the years went by we began to think it was never going to happen. The man was simply too busy. Everywhere we turned we heard about scripts he was working on…but our mailbox remained empty. To make matters worse, our contact with Marcus went from casually sporadic to dangerously infrequent. Did he lose his phone? Did he run out of ideas? Is he going straight to Broadway?

But then, just when we were about to throw in the towel, a script appeared. Not a hint of warning. Out of the proverbial blue. We were genuinely surprised, and we are not often genuinely surprised.

The play was called The House that will not Stand. By page 10 my surprise turned to intrigue, by the end of Act One I was completely hooked, and as I finished reading I was elated. Some things are worth the wait…the topic, the characters, the passion, and the language: a searing, realistic vernacular with a grand infusion of poetic beauty. It was almost operatic. Set in 1836 in New Orleans, the play had captured the heart of a little-known slice of history seen through the prism of a family of African-American women. It was the story of a unique matriarchy desperately seeking to survive the pathology of slavery, of a mother struggling to retain her authority and power over her rebellious children, a story that lifted the soft veil from history to reveal its flesh and bone.

And so here we are. At last. The script now realized as a living, breathing production. Joined by his longtime collaborator, director Patricia McGregor, Mr. Gardley leads us back in time, into the heart of the deep South, into the shifting shadows of the Louisiana night. Some things are worth the wait…

Sincerely,

Tony Taccone

Prologue: from the Managing Director

People often ask us how far in advance we plan our seasons, and we always give a rather vague answer. Not because we want to be evasive, but because season planning is such an unpredictable beast. Some plays are the result of commissions we issued three, four, or even five years before. Other projects appear to practically fall from the sky. Of course, it is never quite that simple. We are constantly in touch with a large circle of playwrights and directors who have great ideas in search of a home, and with an equally large circle of colleague theatres in search of producing partners. Having identified plays that excite us, we then struggle with budgets, schedules, artist availability, and capacity of our staff to build, shop, and stitch all those productions.

The House that will not Stand is the perfect illustration of this point. Berkeley Rep first offered a commission to Marcus Gardley three years ago. This wonderful young playwright, whose Oakland roots make him particularly attractive to us, has been gaining a national reputation with a growing number of plays in production across the country in recent years. Our commission gave him the impetus and the time to focus on this haunting yet witty story of Southern women at a time of profound social and economic change. His first draft arrived in 2011, and our first Ground Floor Summer Residency Lab in the summer of 2012 gave him a chance to workshop the piece with actors and a director. By the end of that workshop, it was obvious to everyone that this play needed to be in our season. But the next season was already completely booked, and so The House that will not Stand became the first play of the 2013–14 season to be selected.

Selecting the play was only the first step. Scheduling it was the next challenge. Coordinating artist schedules, identifying a time period within the season when our technical staff could devote the attention necessary to the particular needs of a new play, these were all the factors that ultimately determined when in the season it would fall.

When you receive notice within the next few weeks announcing our next season, the plays we announce will be, just like The House that will not Stand, the reflection of many years’ worth of planning, seeds planted through our commissioning program, serendipity, and, yes, just some dumb luck. It seems as though every year we hear from audience members who insist that the current season is our best ever. Our 2014–15 season has been created with all the care and attention of the current season and the ones past. We hope it will, in fact, be our best season ever. I hope you’ll join us for it.

Warmly,

Susan Medak

Plaçage: An overlooked corner of history

By Madeleine Oldham

Surprisingly little is written about the free women of color who populated antebellum New Orleans and the system of plaçage that many of them entered into. These women stood at the nexus of two things that we as a society have historically found uncomfortable to examine: race relations and female sexuality. This double whammy may be what helped sweep them under our collective rug.

The term plaçage came from the French word placer, or, “to place,” and described formal arrangements between white men and free women of color, since the law at the time forbade interracial marriages. So in essence, a quadroon (the literal definition means a woman who was one-quarter black and three-quarters white, but as generations intermingled, it referred more generally to a free woman of mixed race) was “placed” with a white man by her mother. The mother received a sum of money for this transaction, much like a traditional dowry.

Business and pleasure intersected at quadroon balls—lavish affairs where girls would dress to the nines and affluent white men footed the bill. Quadroons earned a reputation of being beautiful, exotic, and seductive, which drew society’s curiosity as well as its scorn. They occupied a singular place in the collective imagination, which created a very complex set of feelings among the public. On the one hand, quadroons were recognized for their impeccable grace, manners, charm, and intelligence; and on the other, they were criticized for their wily man-stealing and their failure to disguise their sensuality.

Once he took on a placée, a man customarily purchased a house for her, marking the official beginning of their life together. He was obligated to provide for her and any children they might have for as long as the relationship lasted. (If the relationship ended, he was required to pay her a severance of money or property or both, so she did not end up destitute.) Sometimes, as was common in the area of Faubourg Tremé, the man would live with his placée; other times he would live with his white wife and family.

These relationships were sometimes called marriages de la main gauche or “left-handed marriages.” While the law prohibited these couples from becoming husband and wife, it also declared any other kind of interracial relationship illegal. This was widely ignored and unenforced, however, so plaçage became relatively common despite being technically illegal. It was even expected that when a man died, he would divide his estate between his legal wife and her children and his placée and hers. Often, the wife attempted to sue the placée on the grounds that there was no legal basis for her husband’s other life, and the courts more often than not upheld the man’s will and backed the placée. (This began to change around the late 1820s, and by 1836 when the play takes place, placées no longer benefited from these under-the-table situations.)

Perhaps society initially tolerated plaçage because it arose largely out of demographic circumstances. As New Orleans was being settled, the population of white men greatly outnumbered the population of white women. White men largely comprised the explorers and entrepreneurs attracted to the nascent city. White women often did not accompany their husbands on their new adventures. On the other side of the equation, the average life span for a free man of color was very short (a common statistic puts the median at 8 years) and the ratio of free women of color to free men of color stood at about 7 to 1. So in some ways it made very practical sense that white men and free women of color formed relationships.

The unique history of New Orleans also paved the way for a system like plaçage to flourish. Due to its origins as first a French and then a Spanish colony, Louisiana’s pre-statehood laws regarding slavery resembled those of Europe rather than the United States. They had a more complicated racial hierarchy and allowed room for slaves to work to buy their own freedom, and this helped to create a bourgeoning population of free people of color. Their numbers were augmented by Haitians descending upon New Orleans after the revolution there, and by white men freeing their placées and their children. Free people of color made up 33 percent of the population of New Orleans by 1805.

As this previously overlooked corner of history gradually accumulates scholarly attention, an argument has arisen over whether or not plaçage can ever be seen in a positive light. Some posit that it was a woman’s choice to enter into this kind of relationship, and even label it empowering. They see the fact that some free women of color followed different paths as proof that plaçage was not a lifestyle that was forced upon them. Some ran their own businesses or worked a trade and did not depend on their sexuality for their livelihood. Becoming a placée offered a woman status in society and a comfortable living that she would have had no opportunity to procure on her own.

Others feel that the power dynamic in these relationships was inherently skewed—the two parties involved could never be on equal footing, and therefore a man’s taking on a placée was automatically an act of domination. It is seen as simply another form of slavery—though a quadroon wasn’t toiling on a plantation, she still belonged to a white master and was required to bend to his will.

It’s a complicated question to ponder. Free people of color had more rights than slaves, but far fewer than whites, and their lives were by no means full of the choice that the word “free” implies. Laws and attitudes regarding race at the time sent a very clear message that all people were not created equal. Plaçage did give some women a chance to make the best of a bad situation—one where she had little hope of family or comfort within her own class. But it also impeded her ability to truly live up to her status as a free woman.

New Orleans: Forever in flux

By Julie McCormick

New Orleans has always been a city of glorious contradictions. Perched between the mouth of the mighty Mississippi, the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, and the waves of the Gulf of Mexico, it is positioned to receive both the bounty and the fury of the elements. The land itself is always shifting, despite human interventions, and so too is the city’s population. Countless migrations during its history have led to a wholly unique cultural makeup. Isolated by its challenging geography and occasional political drama, and at other times, the pearl at the center of many worlds, New Orleans has always done things her own way.

The first people to live on the land that was to become New Orleans were members of the Natchez, Choctaw, Houma, and Chitimacha nations. They fished and hunted in the swampy delta waters; there are still piles of clam and oyster shells left behind from their camps, but no evidence of permanent structures have been found in the area around pre-European New Orleans. This is likely because it is a tremendously difficult place to live.

The land in Southern Louisiana isn’t really land at all, but rather, a series of swamps and channels. The Mississippi River Delta fans into innumerable splinters of islands, sandbars, and currents that constantly change. It’s actually quite a challenge to find where the river ends and the Gulf begins—numerous European explorers sailed right past it in the 17th century and ended up on the coast of Texas. Heavy rains, seasonal hurricanes, and a low elevation mean that the area floods frequently. River currents can either break down embankments or build new ones, dramatically altering the map. In the early 18th century, for example, a port built at La Balize drifted four miles south in 30 years, all the while sinking into the delta.

Areas along the Mississippi are the most habitable because the river deposits heavier sediments nearest its shores. These higher banks, or levees, make the ground more stable for building on, because there’s no bedrock to be found south of Baton Rouge. Dig down three feet, and you’ll probably strike water. Like other aquatic cities, many of the buildings sit on wooden pilings driven deep into the ground. Until it acquired the technology to drain the swamps around the city and build higher levees, the city had to remain on naturally higher ground. The French Quarter (Vieux Carré) and Faubourg Tremé, a historically black neighborhood, are built on this more stable ground, and thus are the oldest parts of the city.

All in all, it maybe didn’t make the most sense for New Orleans to be built where it was—there were other, more stable sites in the delta that would likely have served equally effectively as a trading hub between the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, the geography of New Orleans has profoundly shaped both the city’s physical and cultural identity. Like San Francisco on its narrow peninsula, New Orleans quickly became a densely populated metropolitan area, hemmed in by swampland and flood zones. People were forced to live in close proximity to one another, allowing for the rapid exchange and permutations of cultures that may not have encountered one another somewhere else.

After a long and arduous journey down the Mississippi in 1682, the explorer La Salle claimed the river and its enormous basin as French territory and quickly went right back home to Canada. In 1698, the French learned of British plans to place a post at the mouth of the Mississippi. Not wanting Great Britain to achieve dominance in the Gulf, they sent Canadian-born Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, to take control of the land first. Iberville took his younger brother Bienville, who ultimately founded New Orleans on its current site, and a number of rough-and-tumble Canadian-born fur trappers to establish a colony in Louisiana.

The colony got off to a bumpy start. Its new European and Canadian residents struggled to find enough food and deal with the unfamiliar swampland; sickness was rampant, and supplies were low. Between Louis XIV’s lavish spending and a number of costly wars, France had very little money to support its colony in Louisiana. Furthermore, this was the day in which mercantilism reigned supreme. European empires had a rule that their colonies could only trade with the mother country, and not amongst each other. With supply ships taking months to cross the Atlantic and sometimes not coming for years at a time, this economic model could literally be a death sentence for the colony. Though the residents of New Orleans quickly turned to smuggling as a means of staying afloat, the city’s first few decades were lean ones indeed. Bienville knew how important good trade relationships with the Native Americans in the area would be if the colony were to survive. He therefore assiduously cultivated good feeling through shrewd diplomacy and frequent gift-giving, and also strongly encouraged the Canadian trappers to marry into the Choctaw nation.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone who came to the Louisiana colony did so voluntarily. In an effort to boost the population, the French government started sending convicts, vagrants, the unemployed, and prostitutes to the colony. The enforced emigration got so bad that people feared to travel down the road without proof of employment.

The first African slave ships arrived in 1719, and several more ships were to come over the next two years. These were not the first Africans to come to Louisiana’s shores—there was already a community living there of black Spanish-speaking escaped slaves—but these cimarrones or maroons kept largely to themselves. The vast majority of the 3,909 captives brought to Louisiana before the 1750s were from the Senegambian region of Africa. This encompassed many different nations and ethnic groups, including people from Ardra, Bambara from the former Malian Empire, the Mandinga, Wolofs, and several others. Except for a slave ship captured from the British in 1758, no more Africans would come to Louisiana for 30 years, which meant that the cultures already there had a chance to establish themselves independently in the city.

The Senegambian presence in New Orleans not only shaped the city’s cultural identity, but also infused its stuttering economy with new life. They taught the Europeans how to farm rice and process the wild indigo that grew in Louisiana into dye, which became an important crop for the area after grand French plans for finding gold and growing tobacco fell through. Among the captives were artisans and farmers, whose skills allowed them to build up their own reputations and capital independently of their owners.

New Orleans defied early French attempts to create an orderly and segregated city grid. The initial idea was to have the white upper class, artisans, and government workers living in the city proper near the river, with the less desirable occupants (including the aging but still degenerate population of early forced settlers and people of color, both free and enslaved) living on the more bucolic margins, near the plantations that were to ring the town. This did not go exactly to plan. The French architects did not know how to construct buildings that would withstand the hot and muggy climate of New Orleans, and had trouble sourcing materials. There were also simply not enough people to fill the houses, when disease and disinterest drove white settlers from the colony. Though the town in the early 1700s was still mostly white, the colony had a majority black population that was rising as the white population was falling. By the beginning of the 1800s, New Orleans proper would also be a black majority town.

In 1762, after an 80-year roller coaster, France finally gave up on New Orleans and signed it over the Spanish after being on the losing side of the Seven Year’s War. Spain didn’t do anything with its new territory for a few years, and much continued as before. When it finally sent a governor to take over, the Francophone community staged a rebellion and temporarily ousted the Spanish administration. Regaining control and executing the ringleaders, Spain settled in for a 40-year occupation of the city. Today, the Spanish influence in New Orleans is perhaps less immediately apparent than its French connection, but it nevertheless left its mark on the city. Music from Havana had already been pouring into the city for decades, and after a terrible fire destroyed most of the city in 1788, it was rebuilt with Spanish-style architecture. Much of what makes the French Quarter so architecturally unique is actually from the Spanish period.

The French and Spanish empires had a vastly different approach to slavery than the British and later, Americans. Despite the restrictions of the Code Noir, which many people ignored anyway, the French and Spanish colonial regimes were in general far more permissive in their policies toward enslaved people of color. Slaves could earn and keep their own money on the side, which could be used to purchase property, or, one’s own freedom. By law, slave owners were required to attend hearings requested by their slaves in order to set a price point based on skill level. By contrast, in the American colonies, the vast majority of external slave earnings went to owners, and there was little to no ability to purchase one’s freedom.

In Louisiana, slaves also got the day off on Sunday, and many headed to Congo Square. Place Congo or Congo Square now sits tucked in a corner of the Louis Armstrong Memorial Park, but it was once at the center of African culture in New Orleans. These weekly gatherings with food, music, dancing, and a bustling market were not only attended by slaves, but also by free people of color. In consequence, Congo Square became one of the most important places in the city, both culturally and economically. Most of the shopping in the wealthy Creole households of New Orleans was done by servants of color, either free or enslaved, who would come to Congo Square to purchase what they needed. This would enrich not only the coffers of the vendors at the market, but also the pockets of those who did the buying. It was customary to skim a little something extra off the top, a lagniappe, for oneself. In this way, a good deal of wealth and economic power came to rest with the population of color in New Orleans.

Most importantly perhaps, Congo Square created a sense of community that was not constrained by a white power structure. It was a place where African cultures could be remembered and could thrive through the sharing of languages, food, and most importantly of all, music. Drums competed with church bells, and the steps of the bamboula from West Africa intermingled with tango rhythms from Cuba and contredanses from Europe. As Senegambians, Congolese, and Angolans met, a distinctive Afro-Louisianan culture was forged. In the early 1800s, more people of color flooded the city as refugees (both free and enslaved) from the Haitian Revolution and added their own ingredients to the mix.

By 1810, 63 percent of the city’s population was composed of free or enslaved people of color.

Needless to say, these figures made the city’s white population uneasy. Cultural memory is its own form of political resistance, and the people of color in New Orleans had a rich lineage to draw on from Africa, the Caribbean, and homegrown Creole traditions. In 1811, the leaders of a 500-strong slave revolt on the so-called German Coast in Mississippi were executed at Congo Square, as an example to the community of color.

The French re-acquired the colony, then sold it to the U.S. as a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Under American control, the city began changing. Gone were the days of Spain’s complex racial hierarchy, and instead, “one drop of blood” policies came into effect, stripping free people of color and slaves of even more of the few rights they had previously enjoyed. American law prohibited the international slave trade, which meant that most of the city’s slaves now came from plantations in the American South. An influx of mostly Protestant Germans, Scots, and English poured into the city, adding yet another layer to the teeming cultural mélange. New Orleans was already a wealthy city by the 1820s due to both the legal and illegal goods trafficked through its ports, and her fortunes continued to rise with the invention of the river steamboat. By 1840, New Orleans was the third largest city in the U.S. after New York and Baltimore.

New Orleans’ history fascinates for every second up until the present. For instance, the black community in New Orleans achieved unprecedented political victories during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, including integrated public transportation, a mostly black legislature, and integrated school systems. These gains, unfortunately, began slipping away in the late 1870s, and did not reappear until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. A glorious crescendo of music continues to rise, from jazz and blues to rock, zydeco, and funk. Despite technological advances in flood prevention, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. In addition to the catastrophic property damage the storm wreaked, New Orleans also suffered the sharper blow of having its people and their stories scattered across the country. The greatest tribute we can offer to this city of streetcars and jazz, of bamboula and gumbo, is to seek out her forgotten stories wherever we may find them.

In the kitchen with Marcus Gardley

By Sam Basger

For poet-playwright and East Bay native Marcus Gardley, earning his MFA at the Yale School of Drama was like being awarded a Michelin star. Comparing his writing process to formulating an intricate recipe, Gardley prefers to cook an unconventional meal, as we will see when his play, The House that will not Stand, is served up for its world premiere on the Thrust Stage. I had a few questions for Marcus on his process of shaping this simmering piece of history into, as they once said in New Orleans, le grand repas.

Why did you want to tell the story of The House that will not Stand?

I am obsessed with history and especially stories that got buried or that most people do not know about. Most of my work is about digging up history and comparing it to the present. I truly believe that in order for us, as citizens of the world, to move forward we must first deal with, learn from, and speak honestly about the past. This play, for me, is a prime example of that. It deals with a period in American history when Free People of Color, predominately African American women, had a lot of power due to the custom of plaçage. Plaçage is the system of common-law marriages and relationships these women had with white men under the Code Noir, a series of regulations that allowed, amongst other things, for African Americans to inherit property and other assets upon the death of their white lovers. In a sense, these women were both concubines and also some of the most powerful individuals in New Orleans in the 1700s and early 1800s.

What was the most surprising thing that you uncovered in your research?

There were a lot of surprising things in my research. The most surprising I would say happened when I went to New Orleans this past Easter and discovered that one of the characters in the play had a street named after her. She actually started the first African American order of nuns in the United States. I went on a random tour and soon realized I was learning invaluable information about my play and the history of the characters. I felt like the ghosts were speaking to me, which is a very real thing in New Orleans. The people have a unique relationship with spirits partly because no one can be buried in the ground because the city is only so far above sea level.

Tell us about the development process for House. How did the play evolve over time?

Initially, I set out to write about the time period, and then I realized I needed to write about African American women specifically. After this realization, the other major threads just fell into place: the notion of freedom and African Americans who had slaves, and how music, poetry, and family ties play into the central narrative. It all just came together like a tapestry. All of the threads came to me organically. This play, unlike most plays, was very therapeutic to write. I read volumes of research, months and months of endless texts and the story just flooded out of me once I put pen to paper, or shall I say finger to keys.

How is writing a commissioned piece different from writing anything else?

I think a commission is a gift because it not only solidifies a relationship between the theatre and the playwright, but it also confirms the theatre’s support of the writer’s work. Even though some commissions do not get produced, I think the chances are greater if you do have a commission. Personally, I appreciate a commission because it affords me time to write and buy books (I love books) and it is an investment in a story that has probably been haunting me for some time. I also consider a commissioned play to be a gift to that theatre’s community. I seriously consider the work that the theatre produces and themes that may resonate with the community as I write the play. I want plays to embrace audiences. I want people to walk away with both chills and warmth. Plays that are not commissioned are plays that I write purely for audiences that do not normally go to the theatre. Bringing diverse groups of people to the theatre is one of my passions.

What are some of the questions that you think about when you sit down to write a play?

a. Will this play resonate with a contemporary audience?

b. Will this play spark conversation or is the subject matter too easy? I don’t want to write stories that make people feel good about themselves. I want to talk about things that challenge the status quo. I think the best plays have some spice of controversy not for the sake of being controversial but for the hope of casting a mirror on some of our issues. I think theatre can open a wound and heal it.

c. Will this play challenge me as an artist? What will I learn? Who am I trying to please? Who am I writing to and/or for?

d. Will this play employ actors?

e. Will it expose a buried history?

What does your writing process generally entail?

I write a recipe. This is the best way to describe it. I like to cook. I am not interested in conventional storytelling. It gets me in trouble. A lot of people want stories told one way, especially critics. I think theatre is boring young audiences because the narrative, the central plots are all linear and predictable. I am not interested in this mode of storytelling. I like to take dissimilar things and put them in a play and mix it in. I like to discover. I take a history, obscure music, poetic language, dance of some type, mythic characters usually, elements of magical realism, and a historic artifact of some kind and create a play with those different ingredients.

Who are some of your favorite playwrights?

I would say Federico García Lorca, Bertolt Brecht, Octavio Solis, Lynn Nottage, Alice Childress, James Baldwin, Dario Fo, Tennessee Williams, and some Shakespeare.

What are you working on next?

I am writing a musical about the landmark Supreme Court decision on interracial marriage in the U.S. in the case of Loving V. Virginia, along with director Patricia McGregor and with music by Justin Ellington.

You’re originally from Oakland but now you’re based in New York. What does it feel like to return to the Bay Area? What keeps bringing you back?

I have never really left the Bay Area. I can’t and would not want to. My entire family lives here. My roots are here. I visit every few months and for long stretches. Most of my work has been produced here. I guess I am bi-coastal but I also spend a lot of time in Chicago. Honestly, I feel like my heart never left Oakland. Sometimes my body needs to stretch out in Harlem. Sometimes, I get a second wind in Chicago. I find inspiration in all of these places. I love the history in all three locations. Home is where the muse is.

Watch now

Get a sneak peek at House

See clips of Marcus Gardley’s beautiful and witty new play.

Welcome to our House

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Step into The House…

Playwright Marcus Gardley relates the fascinating history that inspired his new play, The House that will not Stand.

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Additional resources

From books to documentaries to recipes, this list of intriguing resources comes courtesy of our literary department.

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History of New Orleans

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence N. Powell

  • This history of early New Orleans is more academic in tone and closely follows the city’s European and colonial influences.

Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, directed by Dawn Logsdon, co-directed and written by Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie

  • This PBS documentary tells the story of Faubourg Tremé, a historically black neighborhood in New Orleans. Beginning with the area’s inception and ending with a contemporary post-Katrina portrait, the piece offers a fascinating glimpse into a history that is all too quickly being forgotten.

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette

  • This highly entertaining work of nonfiction written by musician and scholar Ned Sublette traces the early days of New Orleans, paying particular attention to the history of people of color in the city and to the evolution of its music. For a sneak peek of the book, check out this interview with the author.

Les Gens de Couleur Libre and traditions of people of color

“Quadroons for Beginners”

  • An interview from the Huffington Post with Tulane University historian Emily Clark about her book, The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World. This article, written with a level of personal engagement from a journalist of mixed race, asks probing questions which are met with thorough and interesting responses.

Bamboula: Dancing for identity on the U.S. Virgin Islands

  • A video of Virgin Islands performers dancing the bamboula, a dance brought to America and the Caribbean by enslaved Africans, and stressing the continued significance and importance of this cultural tradition.

Paintings by Edouard Marquis

  • A link to the website of the Louisiana State Museum and images of watercolor paintings from the mid-19th century by Edouard Marquis depicting the elegant free women of color.

“What is Voodoo?”

  • Saumya Arya Haas, a Hindu Pujarin, Unitarian reverend, and Manbo Asogwe or priestess of Voodoo, is a writer and educator about religion. In this blog entry, she addresses the misconceptions about the religion of Voodoo (also Vodou or Vodoun), debunking the evil connotations that have been perpetuated by Hollywood over the years.

“Introduction to Voodoo in Haiti”

  • This impassioned urge to acknowledge Voodoo as a religion from Bob Corbett, a retired professor of philosophy from Webster University, features a comprehensive list of the basic concepts of the religion, including key terms, spirits, practices, and its relationship to Christianity.

Architecture

New Orleans Architecture Volume IV: The Creole Faubourgs by Mary Louise Christovich, Roulhac Toledano, and Sally Evans

  • With more than 400 photographs, this book captures the distinctive architecture of the six Creole faubourgs of New Orleans. Also included is a chapter on the craftsmanship of the many free persons of color who contributed significantly to the city’s architecture.

New Orleans architectural styles

  • A concise index of the most unique architectural styles prevalent in New Orleans, such as Creole cottages, townhouses, and shotgun houses.

Works of fiction

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

  • Allende’s novel is the story of Zarité, a mulatto who is transported from one dangerous and exotic location to another, from Saint-Domingue to New Orleans, and from her rural slave life to her life as an urban Creole.

The Feast of All Saints by Anne Rice

  • From popular novelist and Big Easy native Anne Rice comes this tale of le gens de couleur libre in antebellum New Orleans. The novel demonstrates the difficult position of “free people of color” in society of the time—supposedly free, but still subject to the will of the dominant white class.

Louisiana

Know Louisiana

  • An encyclopedia about all things Louisiana compiled by local academics, with specialized categories in art, architecture, folk life, history, literature, and music. This online reference guide also features a comprehensive media database.

Recipes

  • A link to the Times-Picayune and recipes for iconic Louisiana dishes, including gumbo, jambalaya, king cake, and pralines.