BWW Review: BLUE DOOR, Theatre Royal Bath
"Will there really be a morning? Is there such a thing as day? Could I see it from the mountains, if I were as tall as they?"
For Lewis, an African-American mathematics professor in the throes of an insomnia and amnesia-plagued night in the Nineties, with his refusal to go to the Million Man March threatening his marriage and his forgetting of past generations' plights triggering a tense confrontation with them, it feels like morning will never come.
From the night emerges a poetic, fragmented and poignant reflection on race, memory and legacy, enlightened by two fine performances in a thoughtfully directed production from Eleanor Rhode as part of the Ustinov Studio's UK premieres from the Americas.
Tanya Barfield's beautifully written Blue Door - a symbol descended from the traditional belief that a door of blue would ward off demons and devils - debuted in 2006, but the black narrative it lays bare, from bondage to defamation, is, like the tonal beats of Barfield's songs, still drumming on our doors.
As Lewis endures his endless night, we are audience - and a deliberately self-aware white one - to his dry wit, disbelief ("A divorce?!") and identity denial, as it dawns on him through a series of vignettes that his freedoms are influenced by the suffering and sacrifices of his ancestors.
Lewis feels a soirée of professor's wives stare at his white palms with the same fear and prejudice as the white ladies who pointed their fingers at his forefathers and laughed 'wolf'. The lashes of the whip on his enslaved ancestors are echoed in the violence of his father, with further weight from Elliot Griggs's flashes of light and David Gregory's unflinching sound.
And, his dismissal of the protest - "I don't want to march on Washington just to announce to the world that I'(M) Black" - is overshadowed by the shameful, murderous torment that met black men who attempted to vote. As Lewis discovers, his identity is not "an elective state": it's descended from those who sacrificed their lives for its freedoms.
All the ancestors in this musical, metaphysical fraternity, performed by Fehinti Balogun with magnetism and natural charisma, an authoritative grasp of accents, and Tom Jackson Greaves's earthy choreography, are figures with vices and faiths they hope will free them. From the duty to vote to the paint on the door, the drug overdose to Lewis's divorce from his past, the lesson is that the only way to freedom is to "free yourself".
Faced with these truths and tragedies, Ray Fearon's dignified Lewis is defensive, at first not seeing the forest for the trees in Madeleine Girling's unadorned woodland set: so affronted by the divorce from his wife, he's distracted from the self-inflicted divorce from his identity. And, it's in an acted confrontation with his father that Fearon's performance is transformative, as he flicks from composed yet exposed son to vicious, capricious father.
Fragmented and experimental in form and pragmatic in its message, the play's final image is one of hope: finally accepting his heritage, Lewis echoes the rhythms of his forefathers in his voice and in his feet, and agrees to go on and paint the frame in that titular hue. After the finale of Blue Door it feels that there will really be a morning, and there is such a thing as a new day.
Photo credit: Simon Annand