Poet and playwright Marcus Gardley grew up in West Oakland, but his relatives (who were also his neighbors), came from New Orleans, which influenced him as much as the Bay Area did. He's always been interested in his ancestry, taking French in college and reading whatever he can find about New Orleans.
That's how he found the subject for his new play at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, The House that will not Stand, about free women of color in 1836 New Orleans, women who lived as spouses of wealthy white men. Gardley was fascinated by this little-known history.
"These African American women were millionaires," he said. "The best they could they made the system work for them - they owned houses, and they were involved in politics. Many scholars consider them the first real civil rights activists. They were majorly influential in getting people freed from slavery, including their own relatives."
Gardley, who teaches performance studies at Brown University and has been awarded a three-year residency at Chicago's Victory Theatre by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, says he thinks of The House that will not Stand as a gift to his family.
"So much about the Bay Area is indirectly New Orleans for me because my family's here," he said. "I wanted my first major Bay Area production to be something I could give my family, so they could see themselves in it."
Along with his slight Louisiana accent, Gardley says he got other aspects of his language from his family.
"My father was a preacher, and I went to church every day, so the gospel music of the church was a major influence on the lyricism I use," he said. "And the music of Oakland and our neighborhood was always around - girls jump roping, the ice cream man, the sound of the bay and Lake Merritt, the way people speak."
The director of The House that will not Stand, Patricia McGregor, a friend of Gardley's since they met in graduate school at Yale, says she loves presenting this period of the past.
"There were all kinds of lives people were living - not just slavery," she said. "We're making a historical moment feel very alive today. There's no dust on the furniture. We're showing the beauty of this world, but how it can also be a trap."
Gardley says he used humor along with rich language to prevent the play from being like a history lesson.
"What's delicious about this piece is the women are very nasty to each other, but you can tell it comes from a humorous place, and they delight in it," he said. "It's like jab, jab, jab, and then underneath that they respect each other. They try and connect with each other, but they can't because of the system. That's the tragedy of it."
McGregor says she especially wants young women to come see the play - and think about what systems they get caught up in.
"Within the play there's this examination of things that try and cage people and the lengths we go to try and be free," she said. "Are we living in a system or acting out in resistance?"
"The House that will not Stand" plays January 31 through March 16 at 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