The House Edge: Berkeley Rep and Aurora Stack the Decks Against Their Audiences

A kerchief-laden servant. Three sisters of varying degrees of goodness and shades of pigmentation. An older, housebound woman who's lost her mind but has a direct line to the dead. And a heroine forced to choose between autonomy and community, whose strength and sense of purpose cost her love.

To survey the tropes of African-American storytelling on display in Marcus Gardley's The House that will not Stand, which is set in New Orleans in 1836, is to arrive at one of two conclusions: Either Gardley is out to mock conventions, or he's steeped in them.

The latter theory isn't promising. The playwright's ...And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, a Glickman Award-winning hit at the Cutting Ball in 2009, featured a black Jesus who performed Michael Jackson's signature move.

Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Harriett D. Foy, and Lizan Mitchell bring down the house.
Courtesy of kevinberne.com
Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Harriett D. Foy, and Lizan Mitchell bring down the house.
Corryn (r. Jamie Jones*) and Heather (l. Stacy Ross*) discuss Gidion's classroom interactions
David Allen
Corryn (r. Jamie Jones*) and Heather (l. Stacy Ross*) discuss Gidion's classroom interactions

Location Info

Map

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

2025 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704

Category: Schools

Region: Downtown Berkeley

Aurora Theatre Company

2081 Addison
Berkeley, CA 94704

Category: Theaters

Region: Downtown Berkeley

Details

Through March 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$59; call (510) 647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org. Through March 9 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50; call (510) 843-4822 or visit auroratheatre.org.

But neither is The House that will not Stand, which is now in its world premiere at Berkeley Rep under the direction of Patricia McGregor, an attack on plaçage — a tradition by which white men could take women of color, such as Beatrice (Lizan Mitchell), as second quasi-wives despite the illegality of interracial marriage. Rather, this script seeks to live fully and earnestly in antebellum Louisiana, to let characters and storytelling methods with a complex and often shameful history live and breathe anew, with a modern-day purpose: the dramatization of women's freedom.

Three sisters throw off — or suffer — the yoke of their mother's tyranny in surprising ways. The swelling, riffing song of one slave's freeing stops time as might religious rapture. An invalid, oppressed in her diagnosis of mental illness, flies into the spirit world with the fluidity of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez character.

And yet, triumphant as these stories are, it's hard not to notice the cranks and levers tugging at your heartstrings. Even as Gardley seeks to see this world with fresh eyes, he goes through some storytelling mechanisms as if by rote: the lyrical but lengthy recitation of a dreamlike memory not directly connected to the plot; the contracts, wills, and deeds that, as the well-greased hinges of melodrama always do, flip victory to doom with tick-tock rhythm. Gardley also stacks his deck with a villain too easy to hate, too elusive to pin to one character: the systematic racism and misogyny that rendered women like Beatrice nonhumans in the eyes of the law. Gardley gives Mitchell and Harriett D. Foy, playing Beatrice's scheming, sassy slave, scrumptious lines with which to vanquish this foe, and those two actors wring every syllable for all its poetic juice — particularly Mitchell, whose voice can plumb manly, Nina Simone-like depths and then jump into a singsong lilt. They are mighty warriors — with excess weaponry for a weak nemesis.


A door down, at the Aurora, playwright Johnna Adams also stacks her deck, with Gidion's Knot, a Bay Area premiere directed by Jon Tracy. At rise, Corryn and Heather's parent-teacher conference has an unexplained but heavily skewed balance of power. Mother Corryn (Jamie J. Jones) bounds in, not just ready to pounce, but using teacher Heather's (Stacy Ross) every hesitation and remark (or non-remark) as occasion for inquisition, then clobbering. Corryn is pure id, but a hyper-articulate id, peppering Heather with incision-sharp questions, while Heather bumbles as if she's just emerged from a car wreck.

The Aurora has requested that critics reveal no further details so as to preserve the show's mystery. Vaguely, then, both women enter this discussion with profound guilt in themselves and anger at the other. If Adams had evenly matched the characters, her play could have been a searing comment on how much society expects from both parents and educators, particularly as the ideal of school as a daytime safe haven crumbles. But Adams endows Corryn with such preposterous traits — for her, her son's talents trump his peers' safety — that the pair's real-world argument, with its ripped-from-the-headlines implications, might as well be taking place in someone's acid trip. Why not just stage this discussion between Heather and a raving lunatic? It doesn't help that Jones can't ramp up to her character's delusions with conviction or that Ross, one of the Bay Area's most exceptional actors, registers her character's often-silent protestations as if she were on a stage much bigger than the Aurora's intimate, 150-seat house.

In theater, as in cards, playing fair isn't just a moral good; it makes the game better.

 
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