Denise Frazier, a Goat in the Road Productions company member, outlines some of the historical context and themes present in The Uninvited, GRP's new immersive production.
“So, do you want your child to go to a racially diverse school or a good one?”
It was a hot day in New Orleans October, and I was at a downtown coffee shop with a friend of African descent who had recently given birth to her first child. Between uneasy sips of chai, I checked on my son, who was see-sawing back and forth on my lap — his wide eyes were crossed to focus on his button nose — and I contemplated her question. I thought about the city as colonial project, about its precarious coast and income inequality, the quiet and present anxiety of mixing resources and races, the social and economic polarization that articulates what it means to live in New Orleans. Responding to questions like these, Goat in the Road Productions’ new immersive theatrical production The Uninvited bids audiences to gingerly step on the humanitarian landmine that is late 19th century New Orleans. This show navigates education, the White League, Reconstruction, and the quiet violence of sexism and white compliance and complacency with racism.
"...We felt strongly that we wanted to continue exploring this remarkably rich time- period that has a resonance today. It feels like a mirror to today’s world. And the parallels are striking,” Christopher Kaminstein, co-director
If you are familiar with local theater company Goat in the Road Productions (GRP), then you might not think it’s too out of character or ironic for a devised work to be about two issues that have plagued New Orleans’ past, present and future: apartheid education and colonial racism. GRP leans into the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable; namely, devised work on topics that range from post-traumatic stress and veterans to yellow fever and interracial relationships in colonial Louisiana to this new work, The Uninvited.
The Uninvited takes audiences into the depths of white supremacist terrorism in its myriad forms. The setting is 1874 New Orleans at the home of architect James Gallier, Jr. and it chronicles the historic moment when the White League mob terrorized the city in protest of desegregated schools, an anomaly in the national U.S. education school systems of the 19th century through today. Fresh from the success of The Stranger Disease at Madame John’s Legacy, GRP and Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses joined to partner a devised work in a unique space; the Gallier home.
“Gallier House went with what we were interested in, and we felt strongly that we wanted to continue exploring this remarkably rich time- period that has a resonance today. It feels like a mirror to today’s world. And the parallels are striking,” says Christopher Kaminstein, co-director of The Uninvited with Kiyoko McCrae. A writing team was assembled to tackle the issue of the White League and education during Reconstruction, a historic time of desegregated schools, African descended journalism and papers like The New Orleans Tribune and L’Union, as well as newfound freedoms of political participation and voting rights for African-descended men.
“To learn about school integration and that people of color were in power, it fills the narrative of what I was taught in an incredible way. I was taught about Ruby Bridges, but not the people who came before her,” says The Uninvited stage manager Kit Sternberger. Federal Union troops had remained in New Orleans from 1862-1877. This era represented a time of unparalleled freedoms for people of African descent, especially in the South.
The White League, a terrorist organization formed in response to African-descended political organizing in the 19th century, complicates the play for the white characters, and also the white actors in their understanding of what it means to be white and “play” white in both the time of the play and today.
Complacency and assimilation to “whiteness,” in many instances, meant and means survival and success.
“My character can skirt under the radar as a white man, a businessman,” says actor Dylan Hunter. “He is not ashamed of his Irish-ness, but it is easier for him to not be persecuted by it. So, he takes comfort in passing as an upper-middle class white person. Doing historical work helps you to look back and create straight lines between then and now.” Hunter plays Eamon McCarty a man of Irish descent who was born in New Orleans. The Uninvited reminds us that “whiteness” was a project that brought benefits to those whose survival depended on a certain level of complacency. Hunter’s McCarty would have possibly been considered “black,” as so many Irish in the United States were in the 19th century. The term “black” ensured that the emerging Irish population of 19th century New Orleans would immediately know their place at the lower end of the rungs of colonial society. It is perhaps a similar reason that Irish born architect James Gallier, Sr., changed his name from Gallagher to Gallier. Complacency and assimilation to “whiteness,” in many instances, meant and means survival and success.
There is a particularly poignant scene where McCarty attempts to match racial epithets with White League member Jarvis, played by actor Ian Hoch. McCarty is later silenced with this line:
“Let me tell you something. My people helped build this city from the ground up and we toiled through fever and pestilence to do it. We never asked for nothing like these niggers and we don’t steal jobs like you Micks. I ask you this: when all hell breaks loose, how do you think people are going to see you? As an Irish man or as a white man?” says Jarvis to McCarty.
The Uninvited portrays the silencing of white women and their role in acquiescing to sexist practices, their resistance and acceptance of white supremacy. “There is a certain discomfort in the Victorian era,” says actor Grace Kennedy, who plays Blanche Gallier. “She [Blanche] is expected to get married, as was the custom for social standing and luxury. She is leaning into their French identity. She might not be so safe, even in the skin that she’s in.”
Through the immersive quality of the performance, audiences get a glimpse into the tough choices of these characters in maintaining airs to ascribe to a system of ultimate oppression from the tightly bound corsets of the women, to the African-descended women polishing silver in fear, to the repressed desires of the younger white women in a home they are imprisoned within. In this sense, The Uninvited mirrors our current world and dares us to feel anything, even a sense of empathy.
Kaminstein says: “It was important to find empathy for the characters who are struggling against white oppression and the white characters who can see beyond their own beliefs. Their blindness is parallel to our own blindness.”
Part of the difficult subject matter ingrained in the show is the understanding that white supremacy was carefully crafted to propagate itself through various aspects of society. “This white supremacist movement did not come out of nowhere,” says Hoch. “Its development has the same contours as every other ideology; it begins with a spark of an idea, then it gets intellectual and academic backing, and people find support for it in religious texts. It wins support from the media and politicians, and then it’s so pervasive that it becomes the standard for the whole society. This is a construct that evil people intentionally put in place to this evil end, and it works, because a lot of people, through ignorance and not necessarily through malice, end up fighting to protect it. It’s co-equal with what they believe is valuable.”
This show is a reminder that, much like the school education question for my son, we are all making choices. And those choices are informed by our ability to navigate institutions fraught with white supremacist histories that terrorize or discriminate, whether subtly or overtly. This moment is not unlike many other moments in the history of a watery city navigating long-standing racial difference as gingerly as stepping over live oak roots that spring up from the sidewalks of Uptown. It is a problem of whiteness that can’t be ignored.
The Uninvited is showing at Gallier House (1132 Royal St.) from January 10 - February 14. Tickets are $35 and available at www.hgghh.org
More information about Goat in the Road at https://www.goatintheroadproductions.org/.