Marcus Gardley is becoming a nationally-renowned playwright, but he calls himself Oakland born, bred and psychically-based. His new play, The House that Will Not Stand was commissioned by the Berkeley Rep and premiered there this month to excellent reviews. From the spicey-smelling bayous of African-American magical realism and the lyrical riff-raff of jazz aesthetics, Gardley brings us a tale of political woe and spiritual triumph.
“I can’t tell a story if there isn’t a political point,” said Gardley. “I’m an activist.” But Gardley’s poetry is the antidote to sloganeering. His propaganda is for complexity.
Consider the world in which The House that Will Not Stand is based: it’s 1836 in New Orleans. There is no simple split between the ruling class and slave class, rather there is a convoluted stratification system based on skin color, French colonial law clashing with American state law and New Orleans social climbing. Whether you’re the child of a Spanish sailor and a West Indian house servant, or an Alabama runaway and a native, or maybe your father is a plantation owner and your mother is a free Quadroon (which would make you an Octoroon—one eighth black), you are hoping you look whiter than you are.
This is the era of Plaçage, or semi-legal “left-hand marriages” between white men and their free, black wives-on-the-side—known as placées. If you’re picturing these placées as sad, locked-up concubines, you’ve got it wrong. They were the heart of New Orleans’ social world.
“These women are grand but not melodramatic, proud but not impolite. Their comedy seeps from a keen sense of wit and their meanness, though served with grace, cuts into the bone and leaves a scar for life,” read Gardley’s stage directions. Six of the seven characters in the play are black women. The seventh is the lively, flirting corpse of a white patriarch.
Gardley’s family is full of strong black women that he describes as his artistic muses. “I’ve also made a deliberate effort to write these roles because I see such a lack out there of female black characters that I recognize as being truthful.”
The women beg, bargain and outsmart a system that has them backed into a tight space. There is no dignity they can secure that is not predicated on disavowal of their blackness. And yet, we watch history pivot slightly on its toes. “These women are the seed of the civil rights movement,” said Gardley. Over the course of the play, they free their slaves, they allow themselves to fall in love with dark black men, they drum on their bodies and dance like their African forebears.
Though Gardley can’t remember a time in his childhood when he wasn’t writing, he says it took a while to dawn on him that he could make a career of it. His father (a former preacher in West Oakland) and mother are slowly coming around to the idea of taking his work seriously.
“I come from a family of activists,” he says, explaining that his parents are beginning to recognize the social justice element of his work.
Gardley is currently writing a play about gun violence inspired by Trayvon Martin and other recent tragic deaths. “I’m not trying to hide my [political] agenda,” he says. “I’ll be heavy handed because that’s the temperature right now. It may seem overdone in fifteen years but right now I have to be emphatic.”
Gardley says he’s been advised not to “box [himself] in” by making plays about black people and black issues. “African-American artists have always had to deal with the white gaze. You can accommodate it, or fight it or ignore it. Maybe it’s because I was raised in Oakland but I’m not scared to talk straight about race. And the white people I know in Oakland want to talk straight too.”
What Gardley says about Oakland could just as easily be said about the New Orleans of “The House.” “There’s struggle in Oakland, and violence and grief and it’s ugly but it’s also vibrant. There’s so much art and fierce advocacy and spirit and I don’t think that’s an accident, or something that happens despite the problems. The two go together, they always go together.”
The House that will not Stand plays January 31 through March 16*
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley.
Tickets are $29-$69.
For more information, call 510 647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org
*The play has been extended through March 23rd, however the official announcement is forthcoming
It be the sway in a Negro woman’s hip,
The shuffle in a colored man’s stride.
The beat be the blackest thang alive
See how we survived
Come quick kin!
Come from everywhere
From every seed and bloodline
Come, you who have only one drop
You who have passed for such a long time
Come, you white as the Lamb
Brown as the furrowed brow
Yellow as teeth
Black as the shadow of an eye
Come you who didn’t know you was livin a lie.
Come while the drum is talking some and folks is loose and getting loose
Arms spread wide as whales
Wails sung high as moans
Moanin come for long
So put some dance on dem bones
Our mothers throned on peaks have been waiting ever so long!
-The House That Will Not Stand