The culture of New Orleans and its people are as rich, complex, and unforgettable as its food, music, and festivities–perhaps even more so. The history of this diverse city is one that spans hundreds of years from French, to Spanish, to French again, and finally American rule. Important parts of this history are African slaves and free people of color. The latter of which engaged in placage, “the system of concubinage between free women of color and white men who were in common law marriages.” These white women often had two families, one with their aforementioned placee (“[a] woman, usually a quadroon, who is part of the concubinage system of placage”) whom he provided for financially and even had children, the other was considered a legitimate marriage with a white wife to whom he would have legitimate heirs. This system was advantageous to the free women of color, as it allowed them own property, have financial power, and even own slaves.
Now, flashback, to 1813, a few days away from the finalization of the Louisiana Purchase. Most free people of color have fled New Orleans for Paris, fearing the harsh laws American laws and customs meant for them. One family of free people, however, refuses to leave and are “grieving”for their white patriarch and benefactor, Lazar. Now ruled by the mother of the family, Beartice Albans (Lizan Mitchell), they seek to remain independent and ensure their house and inheritance are bequeathed to them by Lazar’s will. Beartrice is sure she will finally have everything she has ever wanted for herself, and her three daughters, Agnes (Diana Coates), Odette (Aneisa Hicks), and Maude Lynn (Angela Alise). However, none of them are content. Agnes, dreams of a life beyond the safety of their home and to become a placee. Her mother disagrees, feeling it is just another way for a white man to own her. Feeling they are becoming too old to stay home, Agnes, with Odette’s help sneaks out to attend a placee ball and meet a potential, and wealthy suitor. Meanwhile, the girls devoted nanny and Beartice’s slave and confidant, Makeda (Jacqueline Williams), struggles to keep the family together and finally attain her freedom.
Written by Marcus Gardley, and directed by Chay Yew, this has to be one of the best theatrical productions I have seen in my life. Each of these amazing women are true thespians and powerful ones at that! The story of placage is something deeply ingrained in Lousiana’s history and culture, and for that matter an important discussion to have within the African Diaspora. Whereas some people might view the stories of the placees as “gold digging,” it is more so adaptation and survival. These women unfortunately did what they had to do to ensure them and their children would be provided for. Let us also remember this took place in a period when being Black and a woman was anything, but easy. I also loved how they incorporated the audio from songs from Beyonce, someone well versed, and a descendant of Lousiana’s Creole people. I urge you to support Chicagoplays and check out this amazing play at the Victory Gardens Theater. Trust me, you will leave feeling empowered, and more importantly INFORMED!