Voodoo and magic realism lace Tricycle's new tale of race struggle in New Orleans
PUBLISHED: 06:17 16 October 2014
Like the Lorca play that inspired it, The House That Will Not Stand is an intensely lyrical drama about a widow with unwed daughters who pull against her controlling will.
Poet and playwright Marcus Gardley has transplanted themes of female repression in The House of Bernarda Alba from rural Spain to 19th Century New Orleans to explore a little-known part of America’s racial past.
Set in 1836, it’s a time when racial acceptance under French Colonial rule has cultivated a system of placage – where white men lived in open partnerships with free women of colour.
The play’s opening, at the death of the head of the household, triggers a vulnerable moment for matriarch Beatrice.
Trinidadian actress Martina Laird who plays the role at The Tricycle Theatre says she’s all too aware of her precarious status in face of less permissive racial attitudes.
“Historically there was a thriving class of free coloured people in French-run territories which were sold in 1805 under the Louisiana purchase. It takes a while to feel the effects but free coloured people like Beatrice are aware of the tide turning and the spectre of slavery looming.”
Beatrice has fought hard for her family’s freedoms and risen to become among the wealthiest women of colour in the city.
“Lighter skinned women were placed in a contract with wealthy white men, not a marriage but a steady relationship that had an official stamp in which she was essentially supported. His death means she has to do what she can to make sure her financial position isn’t compromised. She’s aware of her vulnerability in the world.”
Laird, best known as feisty former Casualty regular Comfort Jones, says Beatrice’s controlling behaviour is “contextualised” by a very real threat to her freedom.
“She’s a tough character, ruthless in pursuit of her desires, but her need to control her environment comes from a very dark legacy of slavery. She’s free but still has a knowledge of the cruelty that she has come from and wants to make sure her daughters never have to experience being hurt as she was. Her daughters rebel, but different generations have their own context.
“The young are less aware of the struggles that have been fought for the freedoms that they take for granted but in this world it’s possible to slip backwards. An older generation would be aware of the dangers of that in a way the younger would not.”
Laird praises Gardley’s “poetic” script and Tricycle director Indhu Rubasingham’s careful direction in a production that combines elements of magic realism, murder, jealousy, voodoo and a ghost.
She adds: “Unfortunately there is too much that we can look at in this play and understand of our contemporary situation – like the whole idea of shade colourism or pigmentocracy – this looks at its historical context – the light skin is a sign of being much nearer to the colour of the master – and how loathsome it is, then you realise it is still in place.
“Concepts of birth, belonging, entitlement – as much as this is specifically focused on the historical context of New Orleans it’s specificity shows us all the things we thought we had moved on from and the ugliness we need to let go of.”
Although she recently appeared in the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, Laird’s “heart is fluttering” at thought of another big theatre role.
“The difference between screen and theatre acting is the difference between a marathon and a sprint, each has its challenges, you can be trained for the one but keep wanting to have a go at the other,” she says.
But she doesn’t regret quitting her long running stint in Casualty.
“Being in Casualty was a treat. I had wonderful storylines, it was emotionally challenging and I got to jump off buildings and hang out of the back of a moving ambulance, but I am thoroughly enjoying a story like this that speaks to notions of my own cultural history, community and place in the world, that’s responsible for who I am today.”
The House That Will Not Stand runs at The Tricycle Theatre until November 22.