Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.
Jacqueline Williams, Lizan Mitchell. Photo by Michael Courie
What happens when people are too White to be Black and too Black to be White? Playwright Marcus Gardley’s THE HO– USE THAT WILL NOT STAND brings this conversation to the forefront in a dance with dialogue and history. There are advantages to being a kept woman or a common law wife of a rich White man. There are even greater advantages to women of color, especially those classified as quadroons or octoroons. Free Blacks racially classified as Creoles during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, particularly those of mixed bloodlines, were often predestined to live better lives because of their fair complexions.
Beartrice Albans, fair in complexion, is a fiery, fearless, free, Black Creole woman, who is filled with enough fortitude to take down an army if crossed in the wrong manner. When her White common law husband suddenly dies, Beatrice is pressured to secure the lifestyle she has earned and grown accustomed to living. She has lived her entire life as Placée, a Creole woman who enters into a material arrangement with a wealthy White man that is not legally recognized because of her mixed race and African descent. Meanwhile, as laws are hedging towards a possible change for free Blacks in Louisiana, Beartrice begins to work feverishly against time to secure a continued life of riches for her and her three daughters. Things are rapidly spiraling out of control when her lover’s legal wife is set to gain everything, leaving Beatrice and her daughters with nothing. She will stop at nothing to protect her daughters from being forced into all that comes with living the Plaçage lifestyle. Lizan Mitchell does an astonishing job of completely immersing herself into the boldness and fearless determination of her character. She can dramatically deliver the dichotomy of being a quadroon Creole beauty, forced to sacrifice her identity to live a decent life that does not include the typical struggles of a colored woman. Mitchell works hard on stage, giving the audience layers of candor through humor, wicked diva-tude, and vulnerability. She commands attention with her stage presence.
The daughters Agenès Albans (Diana Coates), Maude Lynn Albans (Angela Alise), and Odette Albans (Aneisa Hicks) struggle to maintain their Louisiana dialect and often speak in formal dialect, a tone unfamiliar to the natives, especially before and immediately following the Louisiana Purchase where most of the people were of Spanish, French, Portuguese, and African descent. It diminishes their identity as southern Creole women. However, each actress’ performance is pivotal in building the story line. There is also Beartice’s crazy sister, Marie-Josephine, played by Penelope Walker, who’s poetic thread is symbolic of pure love and truth. Walker’s performance gives great balance to all the moving parts, as she provides both a sense of urgency and peacefulness to the storyline. I found her to be captivating as she unveils her character on stage.
Then there is Beartrice Albans’s maid, Meka, who is a slave. Makeda, played by Jacqueline Williams, is waiting for her freedom papers to be signed by Ms. Beartice. Williams’ Makeda unfolds as a force with dynamic range, from her zealous wit to her gut-wrenching final monologue. She is unequivocally the hidden gem that catches the viewer off guard by the end of the play. I did not want to cry, yet she brought me to utter tears for so many reasons. Williams infuses so much emotion into a monologue that entails great historical significance, especially as we lead into the Juneteenth celebration.
THE HO– USE THAT WILL NOT STAND dances with lyric and prose while dissecting history. Director Chay Yew is charged with the task of unpacking all these nuisances and themes presented in Gardley’s writing. THE HO– USE THAT WILL NOT STAND visually presents many symbols and metaphors. The play delivers so many messages, from the power of Ms. Beartrice’s cane, a slave’s freedom papers, free Black women being dressed in black, the importance of a woman’s hair and how it often is synonymous with her sexuality and identity, to the many references concerning biblical scriptures, and many other motifs which flow throughout the play. However, at times, the play misses the mark in bridging those moments with the necessary historical context in a manner that delivers the greatest visual impact. Though I love everything about the visual “Lemonade” film, those songs and other Beyoncé contemporary tracks used in the play became a distraction and a bit of overkill. The play still manages to elucidate topics of great significance that still plague Black women, in particular, in finding one’s identity in a society that deconstructs women by their physical appearance and ethnicity.
This is what I appreciate from playwright Marcus Gardley and Artistic Director Chay Yew; they took a risk to tell a story in a manner that is going to stir the conversation pot. I know I will be attending THE HO– USE THAT WILL NOT STAND to experience it again with friends. The production also provides various nights with after-show conversations and celebrations to assist in dissecting and opening up greater dialogue. This production is a summer must see.