I was first introduced to Marcus Gardley and his magical worlds in the fall of 2006 when I joined the staff of the Lark Play Development Center (NYC), an international laboratory which supports playwrights. My first week landed right at the start of The Lark’s Playwrights’ Week festival, and the first event I attended was a public reading of Gardley’s Dance of the Holy Ghosts, a memory play. I still hold vividly that moment when the final stage directions were read, and the audience just sat in breathless silence, as I believe so many of us were just blown away by this new voice.
As the Lark continued to support Gardley, I was fortunate to hear his works while they were still being developed. I watched him bring raw pages into their Playwrights’ Workshop and to their Launching New Plays into the Repertoire program—which led to a consortium of theaters producing his The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry, a play about Black Seminoles incorporating the first all-black town. Through these years, Gardley became a playwright I looked up to and was continually in awe of for the relevance of his plays and their beautiful theatricalities. Recently, we were both invited to be part of Center Theatre Group’s LA Playwrights Workshop, where he developed a new piece from scratch, which allowed me a glimpse into how his craft and process has grown throughout the years.
I imagine it would be impossible to be exposed to Gardley’s use of language and not be taken by how he infuses his dialogue with the musicality of song. In Dance of the Holy Ghosts, we are immediately introduced to Oscar Clifton, an older blues man who lost Viola, the love of his life.
From the play, Oscar sits alone, playing chess:
It’s so hard for me to keep track of you—your coming and going, moon and half moon. When you please, how you “apparition.” It’s hard on a man’s mind to member you this way. I wish you could be more like the sun. He comes in the same shape every dawn—just as bold, just as big. A man can clock his rise to him. But you—you got phases. You got moods. I wish you’d at least leave me a piece of yourself, Viola. Something I could conjure you with.
It isn’t Gardley’s language by itself which makes it so impactful; always it comes from the regret of one’s past or hope for one’s future. His characters, much like blues musicians, pull their musicality from pain and deliver it because they’ve no other choice.
It is no surprise then how Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand, which will begin its run at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) on July 11th, is loosely based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernardo Alba, both plays focusing on matriarchs and homes filled with generations of wrongs which have yet to be answered for. However, Gardley’s version is set in 1813 New Orleans, where “free women of color are permitted to enter into common-law marriages with wealthy white men,” as NYTW describes the play: “The home and life that Beartrice has built for herself and three daughters, on a foundation of money, freedom, and secrets, threatens to collapse after her husband mysteriously dies.”
From the play, Beartrice’s sworn enemy, La Veuve, addresses to the matriarch:
Your house is going to fall anyway, Beartrice Albans. You may be the wealthiest colored woman in New Orleans but you built this house on sand, lies and dead bodies. Soon, it will loose its foundations and come crumbling down on you like a boot crushing a fat head cockroach. And then God willing I will have the sweet pleasure of scraping you from the bottom of my sole. Adieu.
As often with Gardley’s characters, they are connected to their environment and spirituality in such a way that we experience their struggles through seismic shifts in the world, through theatricalities that come from the heavens, or up from the dead. The Earth, which Gardley’s characters walk on, is always still rich with those who walked it before.
From The House That Will Not Stand, Beartrice’s slave, Makeda, spots a man drumming outside; it is the long lost dead love of Beartrice’s sister, Marie Josephine:
Makeda: So put some dance on dem bones Our mothers throned on mountain peaks have been waiting ever so (wail) LOOOOOONG!
(The drum goes wild. Marie Josephine arrives at Congo Square. She sees the drum. Its beat breaks into her back and she dances, beautifully, free, African. Makeda and Odette see her in the distance as the sun rises from the river.)
One of the great joys of reading a Marcus Gardley play is the imagery he evokes through his stage directions—and thinking about what freedom, specificity, and creative license he is offering his director and designers. Even the presentation of his scripts, which almost always have a large image on the front page, give the reader a visual sense of the world they are about to enter.
Another insight Gardley offers his readers are brief historical notes at the top of the play which allow us a better understanding of the depth of history that lead up to that particular play. Though, while the facts are helpful, the real history of Gardley’s worlds are embedded in his characters and the atmospheres they exist in.
From The House That Will Not Stand, Makeda invokes the complex history of the land they are now living on.
Makeda: Good. Then you seeing your soul.
You seeing where your blackness began.
(We hear drumming, it builds.)
There. Where Indians carved a square with their feet way back when
And danced secrets into the soil that confuse many a folk now.
For they knew what we will never know:
How to slow a hurry-cane
How to tear loose a tornado
How to grab hold a quake, rock to its beat so as to not lose your footing.
Them Indians, God rest em.
Was put down long ‘fore they brought us round.
Us. We. Kin of Kulekini, cousins of Nkumu
Daughters of Candace
Whose arms we were ripped from and sold.
And souls sold over waters.
While Gardley’s work often explores specific locations and times from our troubled histories, he is still very much responding to the now. On hearing the ideas and struggles within his plays, we are reminded how deeply etched our prejudices and inequalities are. The themes are alive and resonate with what our current world is dealing with. His 2015 play, An Issue of Blood, takes place in colonial Virginia in 1676, just outside of Jamestown; however, Gardley wrote it specifically in reaction the continual police murders of African-Americans.
From the play, the final stage directions:
The women look at the crowd running toward them. They see the future. We hear the cries of the future: we hear and see the following projected: protests songs from the Civil Rights Movement, underground railroad songs, slaves being whipped, men and women being bit by dogs, water hoses, black men being hung, Eric Gardner saying “I can’t breathe,” protesters screaming “no Justice, No peace,” Dr. King’s I have been to the Mountaintop Speech, The 911 Trayvon Martin phone call, the announcement of no indictment for the police officer who killed Michael Brown, Angela Davis at a rally for Incarcerated black men, and a little black boy singing this little light of mine. The women stand tall, unafraid of their future. They cannot be moved. Suddenly the sound goes quiet. The women stare—they look at us. We see fire in their eyes. Black out. End of play.
At the beginning of our year together at Center Theatre Group, Gardley said that he wanted to work on his newest play, The Gospel According to Gayness, because he wanted to “create a space” for those he felt were marginalized so that they can see themselves being given presence and voice. He also mentioned it being a play he wanted to tour in churches so that real conversations could be had about how the church embraces the LGBTQ community; Gardley will state plainly that his plays are offerings of hope. Hearing Gardley talk about his work and why he writes reminds me of how crucial art can be as the world turns so unfathomable. And with each of his works, I am reminded of how beauty and understanding lead us to that hope— something we often forget to hold onto amidst the ever-changing world.