A play with original songs
By Tanya Barfield
Directed by Delroy Lindo
Main Season · Thrust Stage
April 6–May 20, 2007
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
When he refuses to attend the Million Man March, an African-American professor finds his personal and professional lives thrown into turmoil. Unable to sleep in the bed abandoned by his wife, Lewis is visited by his ancestors—men who fought to be free, to vote, to obtain justice. Two exceptional actors embody three generations in this powerful new play from a promising young writer. Blue Door is a searing examination of family and identity that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to live with—or escape—the past.
Tanya Barfield · Playwright
Delroy Lindo · Director
Kate Edmunds · Scenic Design
Emilio Sosa · Costume Design
Kathy A. Perkins · Lighting Design
Andre Pluess · Sound Design
Lynne Morrow · Vocal Coach
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Janet Foster · Casting
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Teagle F. Bougere · Simon / Rex / Jesse
David Fonteno · Lewis
“Delroy Lindo, in his local directorial debut, has staged the 90-minute drama as expertly as it’s performed…Lindo, best known as a distinguished movie actor, has plenty of stage experience…Barfield’s dialogue, with its curiously muscular lyricism, is full of unexpected rewards—sly turns of phrase, choice metaphors and well-chosen bits of African and African American lore…It is an impressive local debut for all four major players, including the widely experienced New York and regional actors David Fonteno and Teagle F. Bougere…Bougere incisively creates the lineage of one family—from slavery through white supremacist terrorism to modern times—as David Fonteno’s magnetically repressed, African American math professor undergoes a long night of soul-searching.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“In its regional premiere at Berkeley Rep, Tanya Barfield’s promising new play Blue Door teases out the variable of racial identity…Delroy Lindo has orchestrated this 90-minute piece with nimble precision…[David] Fonteno imbues Lewis with a grandeur tinged with self-doubt…[Teagle] Bougere fleshes out each ancestory with an uncanny economy…Each moment seems full and ripe with an idiosyncratic sense of truth.”—San Jose Mercury News
“Director Delroy Lindo has done a masterful job…It is a powerful evening, deftly presented by the two men, who are almost consumed by the characters they play, managing to give each specific and effective traits that make them painfully realistic and delightfully human…A remarkable acting job…This unusual story places questions of race, heritage and responsibility on a very personal level…A memorable, eloquent play that will be recalled as much for its clarity as it is for its message.”—Contra Costa Times
“An intriguing identity quest…Barfield’s attempt to tell some of these generational stories and reclaim as much of the shared past as possible is what gives Blue Door its heft and its heart…The play surges with passion, courage and lyrical beauty…The performances are striking.”—Oakland Tribune
“Magnificent! An intense, dramatic experience…Absolutely brilliant performances are turned in by its two-man cast—stage and screen actors David Fonteno and Teagle F. Bougere…It is powerfully directed by prominent actor Delroy Lindo, making his Berkeley Rep directorial debut a huge success…This is must-see theatre.”—KGO-AM
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Opening a door to illumination
It is commonly stated that the goal of art is to illuminate: to provide light and enlightenment so that we may see things in a new way. Whether it be some aspect of our humanity, our history or our experience, the serious artist is always trying to reveal something to his or herself; to bring forth something from the unconscious into the light of consciousness. It is always an unpredictable act, often risky and sometimes even dangerous, for we may not want to see what the artist has chosen to reveal.
This season is filled with plays that attempt to fulfill this higher task. From Passing Strange to The Pillowman to Blue Door, we have chosen to present work that insists on exploring ideas that have hitherto remained largely unaddressed. We do this knowing that audience members have different boundaries and different appetites for exploring subjects regarded as taboo. We are one of the few theatres in the country, however, that can make a convincing case that our audience is interested in taking such a journey.
In our latest production, Tanya Barfield plunges headlong into the history, mythology and legacy of oppression inherited by African-American men. Employing a vividly theatrical style which seeks to both enlighten and entertain (two actors engaged in an epic depiction of one man’s lineage), Blue Door opens up a window on the present by revealing the past. Rather than presenting a simple, didactic portrait of one man’s suffering, the play attempts to unearth the roots of racial alienation, the price of compromise and the promise of empathy.
To direct this play we are very excited to welcome Mr. Delroy Lindo, who for many years has earned extraordinary acclaim as an actor of stage and screen. Delroy has been in dialogue with us for over three years about wanting to be a part of the Berkeley Rep community, and this project felt like a perfect way to deepen the conversation. His passion, his belief in the play and his yearning to work with the actors to explore its nuances, all combine to create the possibility of generating real insights into the subject matter.
We hope that your experience will be nothing less than illuminating.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Theatre everyone can afford
A few of our subscribers have been attending Berkeley Rep ever since we opened our doors in 1968, veteran theatre-goers who were delighted to have this feisty company starting up in our community. However, many of the people who now join us for every show were back then still in college or newly married or searching for that entry-level job which led toward their dreams.
In those days, we performed in a storefront on College Avenue. The roof occasionally leaked, the seats didn’t match, the temperature was unreliable—but the work was adventuresome and delivered with missionary zeal. Over the years, the seats have gotten more comfortable, and the temperature is (usually) better. (Knock on wood, we’ll finally retire and replace the 25-year-old air conditioner which ventilates our Thrust Stage this summer!). But one thing has never disappeared: that missionary zeal.
Still, the world around us has changed. As costs escalated, our ticket prices increased as well. Tickets to Berkeley Rep are certainly more affordable than seeing a Broadway show, a concert or many other cultural events—but the cost of a full-price ticket here is still unfortunately out of reach for many of the people in our community who are themselves in college, just starting families and launching careers. Many of our longtime ticket holders have shared with me their concern that we find ways to open our doors to new audiences.
And we’ve been doing just that in recent years. In 2001, when we opened the Roda Theatre, we also established our “under 30” discount. The number of young people taking advantage of that program has steadily grown, and now a full 12% of our audience is comprised of students and young people using these tickets. We hope to see continued growth in that audience, but we feel we can do more. We think our 40th birthday is the perfect occasion to launch our next step in creating new opportunities for more diverse participation.
So I’m thrilled to say that we’re unveiling a new structure of tiered ticket prices. It divides each of our theatres into three seating sections with different prices for each section, bringing us in line with almost every other theatre in the industry and, for that matter, with just about every other cultural venue out there. Most of our current subscribers will not be impacted by this change, as you have always enjoyed the best seats in the house and the price of those premium seats will not be reduced. However, with this new structure, we’ll be able to offer lower-priced seats for every performance, as well as discounted subscriptions for some seats.
Whether you are on a fixed income or on a limited budget, we think you’ll find that we now have a price category that suits your capacity. So if cost is a factor for you in considering next season, I encourage you to take a look at your pricing options. And if you’re ready to join the growing list of families who make a multigenerational commitment to Berkeley Rep, this may be the time to sign up.
Voices from the past: An interview with the playwright
By Sarah Hart
Sarah Hart: What was your impulse in writing Blue Door? Did you have a story you wanted to tell?
Tanya Barfield: I started with the history. The character of Simon spoke to me first. I was moved by the myriad oral histories that I’d read. I wrote reams of material that never made it into the play. Then I thought, well, in order for this to be a play, Simon must have someone who needs to hear his story. That’s how the character of Lewis was formed—and I find the issues Lewis faces very compelling. I feel middle-class blacks are under-represented on the stage and screen.
How did you start your research?
I read a lot of the WPA [Works Progress Administration] interviews. There’s recorded music from the period, the Alan Lomax collection. There are oral histories online. I think I read just about every book on slavery that’s ever been written. Then I became interested in the dilemmas facing blacks during Reconstruction (that in many ways were much more complicated than slavery). I read about chain gangs and early Jim Crow laws. I also read a lot of folktales. The humor that comes from the Jesse character and the parable-like stories that he tells were inspired by black folktales.
You wrote the songs. Do you have a musical background?
None. Well, my father was an amateur jazz musician, but I’m not particularly musical. I did a lot of musical research until I felt I could write songs that were authentic to each period. The Yoruba song was tricky, because I don’t speak Yoruba. My dramaturg at Sundance, Chris Sumption, said, “Well, I’ll order you a Yoruba dictionary online and we’ll have it FedExed.” And it came, but it was only Yoruba to English—no English to Yoruba. So I literally read every page of the dictionary to look for the words that I wanted. Then when I was at South Coast, the director, Leah Gardiner, had a friend who spoke Yoruba and he was willing to look at it and correct the grammar and stuff like that.
Where did you come across the image of the blue door?
I wrote the book for a children’s musical about a young boy who escapes from slavery and joins the first black regiment in the Union army. That was my first foray into historical plays. I learned a lot about Gullah beliefs from writing that play, but since it’s a children’s play, you can’t put in everything you’d like to. The Gullah were an isolated culture on the Sea Islands, off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. There were problems with mosquitoes and other pestilence that the white slave masters didn’t want to expose themselves to. So the isolated slaves were allowed to keep much of their indigenous culture that mainland slaves could not. That culture is still alive today. It’s a link between Africa and America. There’s a belief in Gullah culture that if you paint your door blue, you keep away the evil spirits, which are called haints. I always felt that the haints—which are described like ghosts—were the white slave masters or KKK.
Then we started rehearsal. Leigh Silverman, our director at Playwrights Horizons, had visited Israel and had gone to this spiritual city Safed, where kabbalah originated. Many of the doors are painted blue there for a similar reason. When I visited India, in Jodhpur, which they call the blue city, all the doors are painted blue for protective purposes. I’ve heard of another such city in Tunisia. It seems that cultures tend to share certain mythologies.
Did you give yourself an education in mathematics?
I did. That was the most difficult research of all. When I was in high school my mother made me take advanced math and physics, even though I was hopelessly bad at both of them. But I think taking those classes formed a curiosity or an inkling that I didn’t realize at the time. I read a lot about studies of time. And I had different mathematicians look the play over because I really wanted to make sure that what Lewis talks about was accurate, credible. I had Lewis teaching the Philosophy of Mathematics, which I thought I made up, and then I asked one of these mathematicians if there’s really such a thing as philosophy of math and he said, “Absolutely.”
This play is about legacy, and Lewis has no son or daughter. Did you see him as an end point?
I saw him as an end point because there’s an immediacy and an urgency for him to have to look back. And if he had a child, there could be the hope that that child would look back.
How did you choose the Million Man March as the catalyst for Lewis’s wife leaving him?
I was talking to various black men and there were a lot of divergent opinions about the Million Man March. Some were very positive and some weren’t so positive—vast differences in how people felt about it that I didn’t realize at the time. It seemed believable to me that Lewis would feel that way—and also, it seemed like a funny starting point.
One of the most striking things about Lewis as a character and about the play is the humor.
Humor is so important in the black community. Humor and songs have both been major coping mechanisms for oppression. It was important to me that that was represented. I never knew that I had a funny bone. My parents have always said, “You’re so serious.” But when I studied with Chris Durang [at Juilliard], he would always laugh at what I wrote. I began to bring more comedy into my writing.
Did you plan to grow up and be a writer?
I started out wanting to be an actor—mostly because I had no idea living playwrights existed. I came from a non-theatrical family and I thought all plays were written by dead people. I was at NYU undergrad for acting, then I did solo performance, which was how I started writing. Leigh Silverman workshopped my first play with me, and she said, “Why don’t you apply to Juilliard?”
Who are some of your influences as a playwright?
Oh, that’s such a hard question. I think that I am inspired by productions. When thinking about Blue Door, three plays come to mind: Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, then [Michael Frayn’s] Copenhagen, then the recent production of [Lee Blessing’s] Going to St. Ives at Primary Stages. Though I’d already written Blue Door when I saw St. Ives, I felt encouraged by it. I admire my contemporaries Lynn Nottage and Kia Corthron. I still think about a production of [Maria Irene] Fornes’s Mud directed by Kate Whoriskey when we were at NYU.
What about audience? Rex asks Lewis about his audience.
Lewis’s dilemma—which was really another inspiration for the play—is W.E.B. DuBois’s comment about otherness—always looking at yourself through the eyes of the other. That’s what’s happening to Lewis. He’s always looking at himself through the eyes of white people. There’s the inside joke about most theatres having more white subscribers than black, but that’s just the wink-wink. Hopefully if the play were produced a number of years from now, that part of the joke wouldn’t land.
The final nudge for his night of reckoning comes from his wife, who is a white woman.
The final nudge comes from his wife, but the entry to the journey of this night comes from [his brother] Rex. And the catalyst for his breakdown is both his father and his student Leroy. I guess you could quibble over what triggers it. Lewis has this line, “A constellation of moments.” In the play, all time—and this is where the math comes in—is happening simultaneously.
This interview was first published in the December 2006 issue of American Theatre. Reprinted with permission.
Writing Blue Door was the act of exploring forgotten territory. I began the writing out of frustration over the predominant stereotypes of African-Americans in the entertainment industry: endless depictions of ghetto culture. In reality, the majority of African-Americans happen to be middle-class—yet this is rarely represented on the stage and screen. A one-sided image of Black People in the Hood is being marketed to America (not to mention people around the globe) as one of the only pictures of blacks in this country. In addition, the long legacy of African-American identity is often suppressed by the predominant feeling that being a descendant of a slave is shameful—yet being a misogynistic rap artist idealizing violence is not. Why? This question swirls around in my head as I look at my own family and personal community and see that we are a bunch of smart people—rarely central characters on the American stage (not to mention TV or the movies). And when we are on TV, it is often as a reactionary puppet regurgitating a conservative political ideology that I personally see as a direct assault on the black community.
So, at first, it was frustration that spurred me to write Blue Door. I thought about the myriad issues facing non-ghetto blacks and I eventually honed in on the complicated problem of success and assimilation. At the same time, I felt myself pulled by the histories of our people. I set about researching slave narratives, West African griots (of which many American slaves were cultural descendants) and African-American folktales. I crafted monologues inspired by the long tradition of storytelling in the American black community, dating back to our West African ancestors. Due to the fact that it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write, it was through storytelling and song that our people’s communal identity and history has been preserved. Not that oral history is uniquely African-American, of course. The Odyssey, The Iliad and the Scandinavian Sagas are only a few famous examples from other cultures. But today, it seems that the oral histories and magical folktales of African-Americans are being forgotten. And this cultural amnesia has not been entirely foisted on us by whites, but by our own shame and internalized racism.
It is my hope that many of the themes explored in Blue Door are ones which people of any culture can relate to. After all, we all have ancestors. Every culture has a legacy from which it’s birthed. I think it is part of human nature to be pulled by our ancestors, to feel their watchful spirits, to wish we knew their stories, to both scorn and adore them. In times of crisis (when our own self threatens to fragment), we might wonder if our ancestors could answer the basic question of identity. In this vast and complicated universe: who am I? It is only through memory that the soul of an ancestor is kept alive. If we forget our past, do we in some way forget ourselves?
Blue Door is the play that emerged from these questions. It is a very personal exploration, my own theatrical meditation on “blackness,” identity and ancestral heritage. Or, more simply put, the story of a man in the throes of insomnia. This is his night journey.
Reprinted with permission from the Playwrights Horizons program for their production of Blue Door.
Symbolism of the Sankofa bird
The concept of Sankofa is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of West Afrika. Sankofa is expressed in the Akan language as “se wo were fin na wosan kofa a yenki.”
Sankofa teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone or been stripped of, can be reclaimed, revived, preserved and perpetuated.
Visually and symbolically sankofa is expressed as a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth.
A symbol of wisdom and learning from the past to build for the future (literal meaning: go back to fetch it).
Sankofa means “go back to the past in order to build for the future,” or that we should not forget the past when moving ahead. We should learn from the past and move forward into the future. Sankofa is a realization of self and spirit. It represents the concepts of self-identity, redefinition and vision. It symbolizes an understanding of one’s destiny and collective identity of the larger cultural group.
Sankofa is symbolic of the spiritual mind-set and cultural awakening African people were experiencing in the decades after independence on the African continent. The Sankofa bird is used to represent Sankofa. The symbol is of a bird turning its head backward and its long beak is turned in the direction of its tail.—The Adinkra Dictionary by W. Bruce Willis
There is a strong belief in the spirit world as an extension to their faith. Most of their customs were considered paganistic by the planters and were forbidden. Even today, if one goes to Charleston, Edisto Island or any of the Sea Islands, he can see doors and shutters painted a bright blue to keep out the evil spirits.—from The Mermaid’s Chair, by Sue Monk Kidd