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Theatre in Review: Bernarda's Daughters (The New Group/National Black Theatre)

Pascale Armand, Alana Raquel Bowers. Photo: Monique Carbon

For whatever reason, The House of Bernarda Alba has become attractive to contemporary playwrights. What do they see in Federico García Lorca's 1936 drama about an all-female household oppressed by rural traditions and Roman Catholic piety, festering with jealousy and repressed desire? Different things, as it happens, many of them having little to do with the original play. To be sure, Michael John LaChiusa's 2006 musical adaptation was fairly straightforward. In 2018, however, Marcus Gardley's The House That Will Not Stand moved it from a Spanish village to New Orleans around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, transforming the principal characters into Creoles as a way of commenting on the complex and shifting race laws of that time and place. Now comes Diane Exavier's Bernarda's Daughters, set in contemporary Brooklyn among Haitian-Americans and it is a very strange proposition indeed.

The first puzzler is the set, designed by Carlos J. Soto, which places the audience on three sides of a house frame covered in a scrim that is just evident enough to be distracting. The interior is basically unfurnished except for a few small boxes and two Goliath-sized laundry bags. The structure is lined with color-changing LED tape. It's a bizarre approach to what is described in the script as an "Edwardian house in Flatbush," in which "the décor ranges anywhere from late seventies to early aughts" and "things have just sort of piled onto each other." The script admittedly calls for a minimal design approach with no elaborate furnishings, and I know we live in budget-challenged times, but this solution feels strange and off-putting.

Then again, most of the action happens far, far from this underfurnished stage. The five daughters -- here named Louise, Harriet, Lena, Maryse, and Adela -- are all present, as is their grandmother, Florence Delva, who may or may not be out of her mind, but Bernarda (of the title) is in Haiti, burying her second husband. Indeed, Bernarda's Daughters may set some kind of record for offstage characters of consequence. They include a set of half-siblings for whom the sisters have been instructed to write letters of support, presumably to the INS, and two men, Matt and Peter, who form a triangle with Louise. They are part of one of many tangled offstage subplots, this one involving Louise's plan to seduce Peter, their later father's Jewish lawyer, who possesses the deed to the family's house. Other twists involve the murky circumstances behind "the case," a bus accident that damaged Bernarda; an apparent insurance swindle; the murder of a dog; the death, unintentional or not, of an unborn child; and various Vodou spells. Louise's plan to build and market a vacation villa in Haiti seems particularly ill-advised; she'd better hope no potential customer follows the news or keeps up with State Department advisories.

All these plot contortions exist to prove that the sisters are screwed both by their late father's machinations and a racist-capitalist system rigged against them. But Exavier makes it clear from the start that they are victims of oppression, establishing them as largely housebound, unlucky in love, and lost in a changing neighborhood. Underscoring this point are news bulletins about the shooting of a Black youth that leaves them unnerved and upset. ("They thought he was holding a gun," says Adela. "Could you imagine? Ten bullets going through every part of your body. Ten times your flesh explodes. And for what?") The constant chatter about distant developments becomes tedious; it is also redundant because the deck is so obviously stacked against these women from the get-go.

The play serves mostly as a vehicle for the characters' fury, which is expressed in a kind of clotted poetry that may read better than it sounds. Maryse has an erotic monologue so overburdened with feline imagery that Adela undercuts it with a wisecrack. ("Jesus, all that to say you're horny?") Harriet, commenting on Louise's problematic personal life, says, "Love -- in this fucking country? My womb was full of rocks. That's what bodies like ours think of love: babies made of stone. Richard [her ex] couldn't even look at me when we fucked. Always stared off to the side when he held my hand. Like I was Medusa. And I don't even blame him. Imagine trying to make love to an abyss! I really think we are the end of it all. And I think that's what makes us so goddamn American. Because this stupid country is like the waking end of a crazy ass fever dream. And you trying to out-America everyone you lay down with because the only way to have a little power is to step on somebody else's back is just wrong!" A little bit of this overheated rhetoric goes a long, long way; even with a running time of only ninety minutes, Bernarda's Daughters is an exhausting experience.

If the director, Dominique Rider, has made some dubious decisions, they have assembled a glittering cast that includes Pascale Armand, Alana Raquel Bowers, Kristin Dodson, Malika Samuel, and Taki Senior, in addition to Tamara Tunie, an incantatory presence as Florence Delva. The sheer accumulation of talent is exhilarating to see, even under these circumstances. Kathy Ruvuna's sound design -- of drilling, traffic, and television news reports -- vividly suggests the hostile world outside the house's walls. The costumes by Rodrigo Muñoz and lighting by Marika Kent are solidly done.

It may not surprise that Exavier has no interest in bringing her rangy, complicated narrative to any kind of resolution; the play's conclusion is a fringe of dangling threads. Interestingly, the script is dotted with footnotes alluding to James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and the poet Trumbull Stickney, among others; it's the tell that reveals Bernada's Daughters as a self-conscious literary exercise rather than a gripping work of drama. Surely, Lorca could never imagine the uses to which his play has been put; I wonder what he would think of them. --David Barbour

(24 May 2023)

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