Blue Door by Tanya Barfield was set at the time of a mass demonstration by African Americans in Washington. The play arrives in Bath in February, the first time it has been performed in the UK. Emma Clegg talks to lead actor Ray Fearon
A blue door is believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits in North Africa. A new production at the Ustinov Studio, Blue Door revolves around the metaphor. Having a blue door is how to “Keep the night terrors out. Keep ya soul-family in,” asserts one of the characters.
There are just two actors in the play, Ray Fearon and Fehinti Balogun, but they play multiple roles. It’s 1995, the time of the Million Man March, a mass gathering of African-American men on the National Mall in Washington D.C. where protestors united in defiance of the economic and social ills being suffered by the African American community. When Lewis (Ray Fearon), a mathematics professor at a well-regarded university, refuses to embrace his heritage and go on the march, his (white) wife of 25 years decides to leave him. The drama is set.
Ray remembers talk of the 1995 march: “It wasn’t directly political. It was more geared towards the male presence in America. They weren’t marching because someone was murdered – it was a powerful statement made by a million black men.” So why did Lewis count himself out? Ray explains that the play explores personal and cultural identity. “It is about somebody not being able to deal with their past, not wanting it to be a part of their life. Lewis sees the past as oppressive and negative. Things have happened that have led him to shut off from part of his past.
“When you talk about race, it can become massive and general. But this play makes it specific to one family and you can see exactly why Lewis shut down. So you go from macrocosmic (the African American experience) to microcosmic (the family’s experience) and you see that certain events have had a specific traumatic experience within Lewis’s life.”
After his wife leaves, Lewis becomes haunted, wakeful, and hears the voices of his ancestors. “The sense of these characters talking to him comes out of his insomnia – he can’t sleep because his wife has left him. It’s as if he has had a nervous breakdown.”
The three generations of Lewis’s male ancestors are Simon, Lewis’s great grandfather who was born a slave; Jesse, Simon’s son who experienced the black south as the country became free; and Rex, Lewis’s brother, a 60s black radical who died of a drug overdose: “You got a buncha white people sittin up in your head being your audience,” Rex accuses his brother. “You livin under a white gaze.”
“These are the generations of his family that he plays,” explains Ray, “but there are also characters coming off the experiences that they have that he plays as well. I play a couple too, but it’s all within the storytelling. The three characters that Fehinto plays present the other characters as characters within their narrative.”
“He does connect with his past at the end,” says Ray, “but at first he wants no connection at all.” Ray’s own heritage has strong links with Lewis’s role, as his own parents were from Jamaica.
“They were part of the Windrush generation. Their ancestors were taken from Ghana to the Caribbean to work as slaves, and so the slave experience is exactly the same, it’s just that it is happening on a different continent. My ancestors would have gone through exactly the same thing as Lewis’s.”
This is the first time Blue Door has been performed in the UK, so will it have relevance here? “See an American play and there is a feeling that the characters are far removed from us. But they’re not – it’s a universal story and you see the mirroring of your own life.
“My mum was 19 and my father was 25 when they came to London. My dad didn’t go back until he was in his mid-fifties. My mum and dad never saw their parents alive again because they couldn’t afford to go back. What that must have been like…
“When you talk about race, it can become massive and general. But this play makes it specific to one family…”
“My parents didn’t give out much information about their backgrounds when I was younger. But as I got older I started to understand where my heritage was. You needed to know politically, anyway, so it was best to find out and know it. When I started to understand what happened to my parents in the Caribbean and what happened to their parents, I was surprised that I didn’t know they had gone through that.
“The play is intense and it’s funny,” says Ray. “But in that small space, even though there is a sense of claustrophobia, it’s still got open elements and there’s lots of active stuff going on. And it is all happening in Lewis’s head. The characters did exist but they have come to him on this particular night. So it’s what he is trying to confront and not confront. It is a very interesting treatment, really, just one character with the other characters inside him.”
The staging of Blue Door is sparse, minimal, so the energy comes from the actors. Described as a ‘play with original songs’, the singing is something that Ray won’t struggle with having recently taken the lead role of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the first-ever production with an all-black cast. “They are all songs that come out of the locations in times of peace. The music also relates to my character, so the music usually disturbs Lewis in some shape or form. And it helps open up his memory as he’s trying to remember things that he has forgotten about or things that he has completely shut away.”
Blue Door tells a monumental story through one family, and in stretching across the generations, the universal story has sharp resonance today. n
Blue Door, runs from 7 February to 9 March at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath; theatreroyal.org.uk