Thursday, November 3, 2016

The House That Will Not Stand: Great Writing on Display at the Hattiloo

Posted By on Thu, Nov 3, 2016 at 2:17 PM

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I could say it again, but I won't. The Hattiloo Theatre's production of The House That Will Not Stand isn't perfect, but it's good, sometimes very good, and occasionally better than that. But Marcus Gardley's script — inspired by the Federico Garcia Lorca classic House of Bernarda Alba — is extraordinary. It's a fitting tribute to the original, never standing in its shadow. The uncommonly strong writing carries the Hattiloo's production through  rougher patches. When things click, it soars.

Before getting to the good stuff — and there's so much good stuff to talk about — I want to make a worried  confession. This title gave me pause. It reminded me of something a friend in a band called The Lights once said about his group's name. "I can see the headline if critics hate it," he said — "Turn Off the Lights." I've frequently complained that the Hattiloo undervalues technical theater, treating it as an afterthought. But since moving into the new space, it's struggled with other aspects too. Quality's swung pole to pole, show to show, from perfectly professional, to events that wouldn't pass muster at area high schools. And, just as I've wondered about stagnation and the absence of creative strategies in our older institutions, I've similarly wondered how any new playhouse can sprout so fast, in so many directions, with so much programming, divided attention, and stretched resources, and not crack down the center. To that end, some titles are just scarier than others.

Sometimes, like Lorca, I like to go dark for contrast. Because this is a fairytale review, and the ending is happy. Yes, consistency remains a problem, but in spite of that, here I am, the constant skeptic, with nothing but a basket full of "Wows." Sure, some of the casting in the The House That Will Not Stand seemed off, but some was spot on, and the production, which could have stood another run or six before opening night, was beautiful to look at, and —especially for fans of virtuoso writing — a joy top to bottom. While I still worry about the things I've mentioned previously, I also have to stand back and marvel. Before Hattiloo, it's not impossible to imagine shows like Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, or The House That Will Not Stand making the cut at Circuit Playhouse, or maybe Theatre Memphis' NextStage. More likely we'd see them at the University of Memphis, if at all. But there's no way both would ever appear in the same theater in a single season. And we'd never see these two thoughtfully, and thoroughly rendered productions back to back. The former became a sell out show for Hattiloo, and rightly so. And The House That Will Not Stand is extra special. It's something every theater lover in Memphis should make a point of checking out while it's here. Writing of this potency is rare anywhere, and this still relatively new work has plenty of life ahead of it, with a New York production, and a film in the works. See it now, before everybody else is talking about it.

Set in New Orleans in 1813, a short decade after the Louisiana Purchase, House is, in part, about the Americanization of French Louisiana where communities of free blacks flourished. Men and women, once able to walk the streets without papers, could be stopped by authorities and enslaved. With this change in dynamics — all tragic contemporary resonances considered — came other changes to culture and tradition. The House That Will Not Stand touches on many things, but is essentially a twisted, sometimes terrible Cinderella story built around an old, decaying practice of French colonials taking black common-law wives. There is a (possibly) wicked mother, who only wants to protect her three girls from the new system, keep them out of the old system, mind her interests, and serve the occasional slice of pumpkin pie.

Beartrice (Jacki Muskin) is the Mother in question. Her white lover and keeper is dead when the play starts — choked on a chicken bone. Maybe. This means the nice house she lives in could be inherited by the man's wife. Or it might go on the market and be purchased by an old rival (Patricia Smith). This potential murder mystery and a sub-thread about about the curse of being born darker than a paper bag drive the plot along, but the beating heart of this dark, delirious dramedy belongs to the slave Makeda, practicing to carry herself like the free woman she knows she's going to be.

Makeda absorbs a number of classic African/African-American myths. She's the cunning trickster, separating fools from their gold. She's also the wise conjure woman, and magical in ways that might seem exploitive if the character was created to redeem a white master. She's also a perfect Lorcan clown, responsible for heavy doses of truth and laughter. Maya Geri Robinson seems young in the role, but inhabits this character completely. I predict an Ostrander nomination, and have a hard time imaging who might even rise up to challenge this winning performance.

At first glance, Jimmy Humphries set design's not nearly as gothic as it might be. That's what makes it worth a second and third look. The gently raked and sparsely furnished stage gives this House a versatile, modern edge. With nothing but light the whole space shape shifts to be whatever it needs to be — drawing room or discotheque. (Oh, yeah).

Opening night had some shaky moments. Actors were reaching for the odd line or landing just outside their light. That's the sort of stuff that fixes itself. Director Tony Horne has built his House like a master craftsman. All actors are aimed in the right direction, and this already fine show promises to grow into something fantastic.

I want to leave everybody with this image. Marcus Gardley was in the house for opening night, and before the show he had some things to say about his visit to Memphis, a city that sometime has trouble seeing itself — especially the best of itself. The playwright was overwhelmed by the Hattiloo, and the potential it represents. He didn't completely assuage my worries, but confirmed all convictions when he described the theater — one of a very small handful of African-American playhouses — as one of most important in the world.

There's still a long way to go, but finding and staging gems like The House That Will Not Stand — and doing them rightwill certainly help it get there.

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