White Lines

Playwright Djola Branner blows the roof off dramatic conventions with The House that Crack Built

"I really like this costume," actor Gavin Lawrence declares during a rehearsal of Djola Branner's The House that Crack Built, three days before the play is to open on October 13. Lawrence wears a natty, metallic-gray two-piece suit with an equally shiny tie. The outfit gives the performer a slick and somewhat cruel look--moneyed, corporate, self-involved--that has become the hallmark of the disconnected black urban professional in contemporary African-American theater.

The suit fits well, in the way that InStyle fashion editor Hal Rubenstein defined a good fit in the book Paisley Goes With Nothing: You can dance in it. For Lawrence's character, this sort of fit is important, as we shall see in a moment, and he briefly discusses with costume designer Julie Frabotta Louris how a silver tie clip will complement his ensemble. Lawrence likes the way the tie clip looks, but at some point in the play he needs to sneak it into a pocket, because otherwise it restrains his movement. "I have to do this," he tells her, demonstrating a twisting motion he makes with his arms in the air, causing his tie to gambol upward like a banner in a gusty wind--a maneuver that is quite impossible with a tie clip.

This is one of many such spastic movements Lawrence will make in the show, which requires him to dance in his suit in an extraordinary routine choreographed by the playwright himself. Lawrence plays a character referred to in the script as simply the "Doctor," and his role is that of a smug lecturer whose attempt to produce an insipid educational program about crack addiction unravels around him. The Doctor has hired a small group of musicians and performers to flesh out his lecture, all of whom have their own experiences of addiction, and they immediately rebel against his clinical evaluation of the unruly world of cocaine dealers and users.

Drug czar Djola Branner (seated) with his crack troops on the Pillsbury House stage
Craig Lassig
Drug czar Djola Branner (seated) with his crack troops on the Pillsbury House stage

Branner, a 43-year-old writer and performer, sits in at the rehearsal, and during the play's many dance sequences steps in to demonstrate the timing of a step when an actor falters. Branner and Lawrence run through an elongated routine, and Branner's long frame rises and falls as he thrusts his hands into the air and then doubles over. The movement seems rich in possible meanings, calling to mind a man in chains, or a man being whipped. Lawrence replicates the movement, but with less polish; his dancing seems genuinely pained. As it turns out, such fumbling motion is perfectly appropriate to the production.

The play is deliberately ragged. A character referred to only as "the Poet" receives calls on his cell phone throughout the performance, and huddles behind curtains and against the walls where he chatters noisily. Characters refuse to perform the actions assigned to them, and we are not certain whether these refusals are scripted or spontaneous until the Doctor bribes them to continue. The other performers talk out of turn, mocking the Doctor as he attempts to speak: An extended monologue about the structure of the cocaine trade, consisting of phrases such as This foundation, composed of thousands and thousand of bricks bound by this sweet, sticky substance--this mortar, if you will... dissolves into silence as a musician plays the bass riff to the Commodores' "Brick House" in the background, inspiring a drag queen to sing along.

The Drag Queen, in particular, will continue to pester the Doctor throughout the show, acting as both the sensible moral center to the production and a den mother to the cast of the play-within-a-play when the production breaks down entirely and switches spontaneously into a 12-Step meeting. This disintegration culminates in the Drag Queen hinting at some untoward aspects of the Doctor's own history--precipitating the aforementioned metallic-gray-suited dance from Lawrence. He collapses under the stress of it all and then becomes, quite simply, possessed. His motions start to appear anguished and jerky, he circles the floor as though one foot were nailed down, and he begins to speak in tongues. His breakdown actually seems to hurl him back through time, back to slavery, back even to Africa. "I didn't grow up in no ghetto," he calls out, moments before slipping into a Stepin Fetchit accent, saying, "I'm a good Negro. Yessir, massa sir, I'ma pass my orals and be a good educator and stuff alla my despair inna tiny little box!"

As the Doctor staggers about the stage, moaning and shouting, the rest of the cast joins in with African chants. The scene is strange and arresting, unlike anything that has preceded it in the production; for that matter, it is unlike anything I have ever seen onstage. After the doctor's collapse, the actors no longer seem to be performers in a production. Rather, they seem to be survivors of some terrible catastrophe, and they band together, telling their stories and leaning on one another for support.

 

Djola Branner confesses that when he wrote the script for The House that Crack Built, he wanted the audience to feel that the events onstage were genuinely at risk of collapse. And true to that ambition, the production does not merely implode, it self-immolates.

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