📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
In the historic houses of New Orleans, art coaxes suppressed histories from white shadows. Theatre artists from Goat in the Road Productions are committed to conjuring the realities and dangers of Black life during Reconstruction into the light. Through an immersive theatrical experience set in December 1874 in an historic home-based museum, time bends like the wending curves of the Mississippi River itself, circling back to ask Louisiana how history's lies are working to undo its future.
Amidst the floral patterned china teacups and finely wrought allegorical statuary of the historic Gallier House museum on Royal Street, the team behind The Uninvited set out to chew up the dominant narrative of the Reconstruction Era that newly emancipated Black folks couldn't handle the power they were given.
"We wanted to bust that myth wide open and we felt it was important to put the onus back where it belongs," explained Kiyoko McRae, one of the production's co-directors and co-lead writers. "Reconstruction was such a radical period of history—80 years prior to the Civil Rights Era there were integrated schools in New Orleans mandated by the state."
The incident at the heart of The Uninvited's action, recounted in Harper's magazine, is a documented attack on the integrated girl's school next door to the Gallier House by members of the White League.
"… a disorderly band of boys, apparently with no more discretion and common-sense than most of the White League leaders of New Orleans, went round from school to school to select and drive out the colored pupils. Rude, careless in dress, sometimes armed with sticks, and possibly knives, like their amiable exemplars, the young 'regulators' broke into a number of the female schools…"
—"Color in the New Orleans Schools," Harper's Weekly, February 13, 1875.
In the play, the clash spills into the Gallier home after Rose, a Black teacher in the integrated elementary school, reflexively shoves one of the intruders as he tries to lay hands on her young student. She finds refuge in the kitchen of the Gallier home with her friend Charity, who manages the household. The two women have known each other from before slavery ended. There's no question about Charity protecting her.
CHARITY: We'll say you're filling in for Nellie.
ROSE: (almost under her breath) Dear Lord, what did my students do to deserve this?
CHARITY: The fact is we need a Negro nation run by negro folks.
ROSE: There are white folks who don't have hate in their hearts.
CHARITY: Not until their child has to sit next to a negro child […] don't be fooled. You still a niggra to them.
Although there was ample information available about widow and matriarch Aglae Gallier and her two elder daughters Leonie and Blanche, it was impossible to come by documents to flesh out much about the Black and Creole characters beyond barebones census records—names, gender, ages, but nothing that offered the flavor of their pursuits and personalities. The script, which was written over the course of a year and a half, is not a documentary. The five writers on the writing team never came to learn exactly who was in the Gallier's home on the day of the incident, so they created likely figures based on composites—two house staff, the schoolteacher, and Moses, a journalist and businessman.
"Lots of people have been trying to figure out this history," said Chris Kaminstein, McRae's writing and directing partner. "Museums are hampered by being devoted to the historical record, but in the absence of a record it requires an act of imagination to move forward just a little bit."
"It's very encouraging to see museums like the Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses now activating those spaces," McRae said. "They've gotten criticism over the years because they glorify the history. We had completely free reign to talk about whatever we wanted, including how the Gallier family was treated and portrayed."
The actors were wholly involved in co-creating the characters. Actress April Louise generously contributed information about her great-grandmother discovered in her own genealogical searches, and personalized the play's connection to her family's roots by assuming her name, Charity.
"Museums are hampered by being devoted to the historical record, but in the absence of a record it requires an act of imagination to move forward just a little bit."
"I had to figure out how to be attached to her biography to honor her, but also detached so not to internalize the weight of it," Louise said.
Only 30 audience members per show can be accommodated in the house, along with the nine characters and a couple of monitors keeping an eye on the treasures of the collection. Audiences are asked to actively follow the characters—the staff and their guests, the family members and a suitor, and an intruder from the White League (whose pinched expression looks something like Trump's senior policy adviser Stephen Miller's)—as they move from the dim kitchen into the opulent parlor and upstairs to the plush boudoirs. The setup encourages spying and eavesdropping as the characters maneuver through a treacherous, potentially lethal, moment. The closeness of actors and audience, sometimes just inches away, allows for intimacy and an accelerated identification—we sweat the anxiety and peril out with them, our breath, cortisol, and tears of relief when they come all ebb and flow along with theirs.
Because some scenes happen simultaneously in other parts of the house, the action of the show is repeated in its entirety to allow the audience to see what it did not see the first time. Then it's on the viewers' individual psychology to synthesize the two experiences as they will.
The show powerfully demonstrates how everyone's life is diminished within the dehumanizing strictures and schema of hetero-patriarchy and white supremacist capitalism, even those seemingly on the top of the heap.
For instance, when Aglae attempts to resist the searches of the family's private quarters, she's told by the White Leaguer: "You are without a patriarch in this household… it would indeed be a shame and an unfortunate blight upon this home if it were found to be the hiding place for a violent criminal." Jarvis has made her feel her vulnerability, and she permits the search of the premises to proceed. There's no question she's diminished by the incident.
Earlier, there's a moment when Blanche and a suitor are in the parlor playing the piano and singing; after repartee about what to sing next they land on "The Parting Glass," a traditional Scotts-Irish ballad.
"I picked this song," McRae explained, "partly as an attempt to say—before everyone became white they were something else. And to ask: What does a people lose in order to become white?"
Part of what becomes uninvited are the discomfiting thoughts and feelings of national and personal complicity around past incuriosity of the fleeting—and ultimately aborted—promise of racial equity afforded by Reconstruction. Kaminstein explains that ambivalence has been conditioned in us by a relentless propaganda campaign meant to induce revilement of Black Americans in the post-Civil War period.
Questions of regression are very much still alive in New Orleans. Questions of labor, affordability, and cultural exploitation, as well as Louisiana's staggering rate of incarceration—questions about who is invited to participate in New Orleans' post-Katrina tourism economy…
"This is the time of the origins of the Sambo figure and other demeaning caricatures," Kaminstein explained. The degradation reached a kind of apotheosis in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which depicted Black people, especially Black men, as subhuman sexual predators. "Black people were always trying to push back against that imagery."
Two members of the exonerated Central Park 5, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, were in New Orleans this week appearing at universities before largely student audiences doing just that.
One of the subplots woven into the fabric of The Uninvited is the power struggle between boss and worker. A principled quarrel takes place between Aglae and Charity about an all-white uniform, a new requirement that Aglae has imposed without any consideration for Charity's views or feelings. Accustomed to having autonomy in wearing her own outfits as she manages the household, Charity rejects the idea of a uniform altogether, especially the style Aglae's insisting upon. "It's stiff and big in the wrong places," Charity says to Rose. "It'll make me look like a girl taking first communion. She expects me to pay for it too; a spit on top of a slap."
"The message from Aglae is 'I want you to be my subordinate, I want it to be obvious who's in charge, to maintain the deference,'" said Louise, contemplating her character's motivations "But Charity has been free for years and she's adamant about not allowing that to happen. Her stand is against regression."
Questions of regression are very much still alive in New Orleans. Questions of labor, affordability, and cultural exploitation, as well as Louisiana's staggering rate of incarceration—questions about who is invited to participate in New Orleans' post-Katrina tourism economy and those who are uninvited, by violent means if necessary.
Less than a mile from The Gallier House is the collapsed construction site of the Hard Rock Hotel where two Central American construction workers are entombed in the rubble. The men's remains have been there since October, because no resources could be diverted to retrieve the bodies of the fallen members of New Orleans' working class.
The play's examination of this carefully overlooked event prompts us to take a closer look at absurd racialized narratives we are too ready to accept.
"I think the fight right now is whether the people who make up the culture of this place will be able to afford to stay," McRae said. She is of Japanese ancestry. "I have felt conflicted. For so many years it was more important for me to support the visions and voices of Black leadership. I questioned whether it was my place to create the work itself. I have come to feel that there is nothing wrong with my desire to be an artist, as long as I try to uplift stories I think are important, and connect the artistic work with people who are really doing organizing work."
The Uninvited invites us to contemplate its own set of truths: Some wounds cannot be cauterized. They must be healed. If never healed, they fester. The play's examination of this carefully overlooked event prompts us to take a closer look at absurd racialized narratives we are too ready to accept. Our perceptions have been seriously tampered with, altered greatly. But leading us by the hand, down the stairs, through the dark and dusty corridors, the cast of The Uninvited shows us another history, fearful, sweaty and bravely holding onto the outline of a future that for the first time in America was just barely possible and still threatened on every side.
The show has already been extended a few times through March 21, and the producers have said that they will keep it open as long as people buy tickets.