If you are looking for the real fireworks in Chicago, there is no need to gaze upward at the holiday summer sky. The true explosions are happening at The Victory Gardens Theater where seven superlative African-American actresses are tearing down the house nightly in Marcus Gardley’s deliciously wicked new drama, The House That Will Not Stand. Directed by Chay Yew, and concluding its 41st season with this Midwest premiere, the powerful and poignant play is no drab and dusty history lesson. Set in 1813 New Orleans, the French have just sold the United States the land in the Louisiana Purchase. The French rule is ending and the American taste of “freedom” isn’t a comfortable swallow for women of color. You see, in French Creole society, and under the French rule, common-law marriages between free women of color and white men were socially acceptable. When the Americans took Louisiana over, sadly, with just one drop of black blood in your lineage, it was decreed you were 100 % black by law and not allowed many rights, including owning property. This is where our story picks up, focused on the Alban family, mourning the loss of their recently passed white father and questioning their own uncertain future. Set to a pounding soundtrack featuring snippets of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and over a half dozen Beyoncé songs, this is a show of historical significance, yet told with a brazenly obvious modern touch to entertain a contemporary audience, and entertain it does.
The Alban family is lead by domineering matriarch Beatrice (Lizan Mitchell) herself a common-law wife who wants more for her three daughters. This trio of young women are forced to circumnavigate the treacherous waters of New Orleans Society as well as their own, ever present, contentious sibling rivalry. Agnes (Diana Coates) is the self-appointed beautiful sister, on a quest to find herself a rich, white man and follow in her mother’s footsteps. Odette (Aneisa Hicks) may have the longest and loveliest hair of the trio, but her dark complexion is deemed problematic. She is taunted that no man of society, meaning white with money, could love a woman so dark. The third sister, Maude Lynn (Angela Alise) is a strident follower of faith, easily manipulated by her family’s whims. Rounding out the Alban clan, “Mad” Auntie Marie-Josephine (Penelope Walker) a follower of voo-doo and desperately in love with a drummer she can only see in her mind. Marie-Josephine appears almost ghostlike, haunting the home and her sister’s family, adorned in a billowy white nightgown.
Caring for all of them, the family slave, Makeda (Jacqueline Williams) believing she is now on the cusp of her own personal freedom. Makeda is the real heart and grounding force of this story. Upon first appearance, she is an opportunist and gossiping house maid, but within minutes it is obvious she is the fundamental nurturer of the daughters Alban. Beatrice rules her house with an iron fist and a thunderously tapping cane, which reverberates throughout the theater with every powerful pound upon the floor. Her candidness, cattiness and candor all stemming from the fact she is a colored woman in a rapidly changing political environment that doesn’t appreciate or respect women of color. She is naturally concerned about the future of her family’s wellbeing and the state of the only home her daughters have ever know. Nipping at her heels, long-time rival, La Veuve (Linda Bright Clay) a women hell-bent on seeing the Alban’s fall apart under the new government regime. The dialog between the two women clearly peppered by Cajon style spice and stirred with deceptively forked tongues. Such deliciously fashioned bitch-craft, I was instantly reminded of the delectably camp confrontations between Diahann Carroll’s Dominique Deveraux and Joan Collins’ Alexis Colby from the perineal 1980’s prime time soap opera, Dynasty.
The creative team of The House That Will Not Stand included clever set design by Yu Shibogaki, bold lighting crafted by Paul Whitaker, ominous sound design from Chris Kriz, and the lively and inspired choreography of Breon Arzell. The music may have been Beyoncé’s, but the moves were pure Arzell. Izumi Inaba’s color pallet was predominantly “mourning black” for most of the cast, however each actress was adorned in lush, ornamental and distinctively detailed looks. None would ever be described as basic.
House is full of clever moments of impressive humor followed instantly by vignettes of deep personal heartbreak. The moment William’s Makeda tastes her initial crumbs of freedom, the actress actually stepping from the stage into the isle, it was one of the most poignant moments of theater I have ever personally experienced. It seems impossible to me the powerful yet feel-good energy delivered so magnanimously from these seven dynamite African-American actresses is only slated to run for a month. House deserves to play much longer than its originally scheduled run. Here is hoping Steppenwolf’s Garage or another storefront theater pics up this tantalizing rare gem and stages it again, sooner than later. The House That Will Not Stand is delightfully daring and electric from start to finish. Simply put, this is must see for summertime in the city.
Victory Gardens Theater The House That Will Not Stand is now playing through July 10, 2016
Opening photo Jacqueline Williams and Penelope Walker