Playwright Marcus Gardley weaves his Oakland childhood—and AC Transit—into his work.
It was riding AC Transit buses that taught playwright Marcus Gardley how to write dialogue. The Oakland native, whose play, The House That Will Not Stand, makes its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre Jan. 31–March 16, credits the bus system’s passengers with teaching him to “listen for character.”
“Everybody from every walk of life rides AC Transit, and you can just sit and let it all just wash over you,” says Gardley, 36, in a recent interview at Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage. “[I would] sit and listen and ride for hours. You can’t do it on BART as well because of the sound of the train. When people get on the bus, they don’t hear themselves, so they are very honest.”
Gardley says he mainly listened and remembered without taking notes, paying close attention to “rhythm, how when we speak, we talk on top of one other and can still hear each other, how often we use the word ‘like’ [and] pauses.”
Gardley, who now lives in Harlem and teaches theater and performance studies at Brown University, says his deep Oakland roots strongly influence his work.
Born in East Oakland, then raised in West Oakland near McClymonds High School, Gardley grew up on Linden Street surrounded by his aunt, grandmother, uncle, and dozens of relatives in neighboring houses. His minister father has 14 siblings, and his mother comes from a blended family of 11. It is no accident that he peoples his plays with many characters.
“I had an incredible childhood. I think I lived in a bad neighborhood, but my parents didn’t let us know it,” says Gardley, who attended Oakland’s now-closed St. Patrick School, then Castlemont High School, before graduating from San Francisco State University and the Yale School of Drama.
“Oakland is my favorite place on the planet and not only because I’m born here. It’s so diverse, and there’s so much of a cultural legacy in Oakland,” says Gardley, who fondly remembers regularly walking the entire length of East 14th Street with his friends and the warm smell of baking bread on Interstate 880. “I brag about it all the time. Outside of California it has a particularly bad reputation. Not enough people know about the good. Part of my mantra has been to celebrate part of the positive that comes out of Oakland.”
Set in 1836 New Orleans where Gardley’s family came from, The House That Will Not Stand tells the story of free women of color who entered into common-law marriages with wealthy white men, called plaçage (from the French, meaning “to place with.”) After the mysterious death of her lover, Beartrice Albans imposes a six-month period of mourning on her household, forcing her three daughters to stay inside and embroider linens. When a handsome bachelor appears, a family secret is unearthed, shaking the foundation of the Albans family.
The play’s theme of African-American history echoes Gardley’s previous plays, which include the story of a black man heading south during the Civil War and a trilogy about a tribe of half-black, half–Native American people who incorporated the first all-black town in the United States. Another Gardley play, black odyssey, which re-imagines Homer’s tale through a black soldier returning home from Afghanistan, opened last month at the Denver Center in Colorado.
“I try to uproot stories that have been buried and tell them . . . [so] that we can look at what’s been told versus what has been buried,” says the relaxed, soft-spoken Gardley, dressed casually in jeans and a white sweater.
Fascinated by the sharp contrast of the plaçage women’s power and influence despite their concubine-like relationships, Gardley focuses his story on the moment when the women were stripped of everything.
“Looking at that system really does raise powerful questions about what it means to be free. In our contemporary society, we are always grappling with that word ‘freedom.’ It doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. The word has real power when you look at internal freedom and what does it mean to free yourself,” says Gardley, an accomplished poet-playwright who has won a slew of awards and fellowships, including $50,000 as the United States Artists 2012 James Baldwin Fellow, the 2011 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Playwright in Midcareer, and a Mellon Foundation grant for a playwriting residency with Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.
His play Dance of the Holy Ghost is currently running at Center Stage in Baltimore, and his trilogy of plays, The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry, is touring nationally. In two earlier plays commissioned by Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, Love Is a Dream House in Lorin and This World in a Woman’s Hands, Gardley explored East Bay history in South Berkeley and Richmond.
“I try to give audiences what I call a sweet release,” Gardley says. “I’m a big fan of catharsis [and] I don’t necessarily mean crying. I want people to feel something in the deep part of themselves, for them to take away something from my work . . . to have a conversation about something that would be taboo, or raise a question in one’s own life. That alone to me is worth it.”’
C ommissioned by Berkeley Rep, The House That Will Not Stand is a product of the Ground Floor, the theater’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work, a program launched in 2012 to support artists through a yearlong series of commissions, workshops, and the Summer Residency Lab.
In 2012, Gardley participated in the first summer lab, which provides a group of artists with resources such as housing, transportation, rehearsal space, limited technical support, and a modest stipend for one to four weeks. One of about 100 participants that year, Gardley credits the program with giving him the freedom to develop his play.
“Very few theaters actually have an incubator in which they develop work at the pace of the artists,” Gardley says. “It was so hands off; it was the biggest gift. This was very much about them just giving us space to work, so it was invaluable. I actually don’t think I could have gotten to the next stage without it.”
Ground Floor artists can include actors, directors, composers, playwrights, or musicians—last year two video game designers participated. “We like to push our definition of what a theatrical happening could be,” says Madeleine Oldham, director of the Ground Floor and the resident dramaturg at Berkeley Rep.
Oldham says Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand has universal appeal. “I have been a fan of Marcus’ writing for a long time but this one lifts for me in a way that I am really moved by. It really takes us on a ride that feels both epic and very personal at the same time.”
As a safe place for artists to explore works in progress, the Ground Floor’s summer lab offers a peek into emerging artistic themes through its applications (there were 400 this year for 150 spots).
“It gives us a picture of what’s in the zeitgeist of what artists are thinking of,” says Oldham, who noticed that around the time of the 2012 Summer Olympics, for example, female athletes popped up in several projects. Then it was same-sex marriage and now transgender themes. “Artistry is usually one step ahead of the cultural conversation.”
In addition to his support team at the Ground Floor, Gardley names authors Toni Morrison (for her magical realism and language) and James Baldwin (for his “fierceness in storytelling”) as two of his greatest influences. He also cites Tennessee Williams’ credo that writers must write every day.
“I don’t think it necessarily happens at the computer or with a paper and pen. I think most writing happens in the mind,” says Gardley, who works on as many as six plays at once, his brainstormed beginnings beautifully handwritten in columns in an unlined notebook. “I start my writing process when I wake up, in the rapid eye movement state. I allow the impressions of my dreams to speak to whatever play I am working on. Then I either go to the computer and write or just sit and meditate on the story. It must be before you do anything. Then when I get worn out, I will eat or go to the gym or do something to distract myself. I feel like stories come in waves, in tidal waves, and you let it wash over you, and then you wait for it to come back.”
At some point, one play will rise to the surface, and Gardley then locks himself in his room for 72 hours, taking a series of three-hour naps. He claims the intense isolation helps keep his tone consistent and focused.
As for The House That Will Not Stand, which features six women and one man, Gardley says the high number of female roles was a strategic choice after years of not having enough roles to offer all the qualified women at auditions.
“I said, ‘I’m part of the problem. I am going to start writing plays for African-American women.’ This is the beginning of them,” Gardley says. The play is directed by Patricia McGregor, who directed Spunk and A Winter’s Tale at California Shakespeare Theater, and was associate director of Fela! on Broadway.
“This is an homage to the relationship between mothers and daughters,” says Gardley, who writes plays to bridge the generational gap as much as to offer up new stories of African-American history. “This play is about when generations clash [and] what can be made when they come together.”
The House That Will Not Stand runs Jan. 31—March 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St. Berkeley. For info and tickets: 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org.
Sarah Weld, former editor of The East Bay Monthly, lives in Oakland.