Marcus Gardley spent most of his childhood in a church. His father was a preacher, and he came to see the world through the lens of spiritual rituals.
"The theater is my church," says the soft-spoken Gardley. "I write arias that feel like sermons to me. I hear music that has a sense of spiritual release, like the sweet release of the blues. That's my catharsis."
A West Oakland native known for works such as "Love Is a Dream House in Lorin" and "Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi," Gardley is a deeply poetic playwright whose narratives are usually steeped in the lore of his family. It's just one of the reasons he can't wait for his latest play, "The House that will not Stand," to make its debut at Berkeley Rep.
"This is really a homecoming for me. As an artist, it's amazing to have a show produced by Berkeley Rep," says the 36-year-old playwright, who now makes his home in Harlem. "Plus, this way, all of my family will get to see my work. Now they will finally be able to understand what it is I do for a living."
Many of his tales were inspired by the stories of his ancestors, such as his great grandmother, whose father was a slave. "The House that will not Stand," which makes it world premiere at the Rep, riffs on stories told by his grandfather. These tales led him to explore the curious institution of plaçage -- in which European men entered into common-law marriages with African, Native American and mixed-race women -- in 1830s New Orleans. Directed by Patricia McGregor in a coproduction with Yale Rep, Gardley's richly evocative historical drama runs through March 16.
"Marcus Gardley is one of the bravest playwrights I know," says actress Margo Hall. "He is not afraid to tackle grand subjects that shed light on histories that are not often told."
"He does that lovely mix of seducing you with writing that makes you feel is soft and poetic," says Sean San José, actor/director with Campo Santo. But he says Gardley "does not leave out the stones to remind you where it comes from and the reality underneath."
In the 19th century, New Orleans was greatly influenced by free women of color who gained wealth and status through common-law marriages with powerful white men. Part courtesans, part businesswomen and all divas, these women represent a part of American history that most of us have never heard of. That is something Gardley is determined to change. His grandfather spoke of a family matriarch who used to pass as white, and Gardley longed to uncover the truth of her identity.
"It's almost as if we are scared of our history, as if we don't want to know what happened," says Gardley. "I became obsessed with this history, the practice of plaçage, because I believe we have to own our history, even if it undermines what we like to think about America and what it stands for."
Dealing with death
This world-premiere drama, which also pays homage to Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca's classic 20th-century play "House of Bernarda Alba," spins around the regal Beatrice, a wealthy Creole woman desperate to protect her three daughters in the wake of the death of her white common-law husband. The action takes place in a house bound by the rules and traditions of mourning. Draped in black, fierce with determination, Beatrice plots her path as a widow in a man's world. She will do whatever it takes to secure her legacy.
"People in New Orleans have a different relationship to death," he notes, "because the dead can never be buried, they stay with us above ground."
The text sparkles with the poetry and cadence of New Orleans, a city bubbling in its own unique brew of magical realism. This is a world where fate is a harsh tyrant, where dead souls linger in the house for three days, where languages twist and bend like a tree in the wind.
"He weaves language together so that images are richer, the thoughts are deeper, and they're just so fun to say," agrees Aldo Billingslea, stage actor and professor of drama at Santa Clara University. "He's got great vision, too. So astute that he captures the specifics of everyday life and makes it seem epic."
Gardley began writing plays while studying at San Francisco State University and later honed his craft at the Yale School of Drama. In addition to teaching playwriting at Brown, he has begun to explode on the theater scene with "dance of the holy ghosts: a play on memory" premiering at Baltimore's Centerstage and "Gospel of Lovingkindness" opening at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre.
So vast is his traction on the national radar that "The House that will not Stand" was recently showcased in Time Magazine's top 10 reasons to leave New York for great theater. If it's a hit, Gardley dreams of making it the first installment in a trio that would trace Beatrice's family on a westward migration toward the Golden State and the future. He will build this new odyssey on the bones of Lorca's rural trilogy, which consists of "Yerma," "Blood Wedding" and "The House of Bernarda Alba," except that this will be a uniquely American journey. Like much of his work, it will be part classical, part personal and all epic.
"I love to hear the present in conversation with the past," says Gardley, "I love those echoes. It's like a musical composition."
"The house that will not stand"
By Marcus Gardley, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Through: March 16
Where: Thrust Stage, Berkeley Repertory
Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
Tickets: $29-$59, 510-647-2949,