Blue Door: Painting within the lines of history with Tanya Barfield
I am suddenly aware of the difference between my wife and me. Not that this hasn’t occurred to me before. But I am suddenly aware, in a very new and unsettling way. We live very different lives, and it isn’t only because I grew up in a large metropolitan area… but because I can’t fade into the country. I can’t take a weekend trip without a strained obviousness that I am there. There’s no choice attached to my difference, I can’t suppress it in order to grant my wife a weekend in the country. Even if I dress differently, cut my hair differently, speak differently. I can’t slip into the expanse.
But couldn’t I, among the trees, disappear? If I were among the trees, couldn’t I relinquish myself, all the years and generations that have built myself into this land? Couldn’t I, if I chose, not be black, escape myself and be a part of the trees? I couldn’t, could I?
Lewis, from Tanya Barfield’s Blue Door
Lewis is a black mathematician, striving to do groundbreaking work in Euclidian mathematics. He is just trying to live a normal, urban, upper middle-class, white collar, professional life. But he keeps hitting walls, or rather lines. His wife, who is white, has just left him, because he won’t march in the Million Man March. “My wife and I have been married for 25 years. She says she’s thought about it for some time now, about 9 or 10 years,” he explains in his characteristically wry, befuddled manner, “and it seems that there’s this resistance I have, to looking at myself…. It’s also because of housework.”
Euclidian mathematics says that two parallel lines will never meet, that Time is thus a straight narrative. But non-Euclidian math says they actually do; universes can overlap. As Tanya Barfield’s Blue Door opens, Lewis enters his first night alone. “The sleepless specter insomnia descends,” time bends, and, in a non-Euclidian fever dream that challenges his beliefs, Lewis’s ancestors step into the theater of his life. The ancestors, embodied by one shape-shifting actor, live in the present while acknowledging that they come from the past. Simon, Lewis’s great grandfather, born a slave, bursts into the scene in the form of a buoyant 19-year old on the heels of courting his wife and forging the family line. Rex, Lewis’s brother, who died of a drug overdose, is a 60s radical Black Power type who calls Lewis out on his racial skittishness. Jesse, Simon’s son, is the witness to and victim of the past, of being black in the South as the country turned free.
SIMONBefore I tell you bout Katie, I best tell you bout me. I didnt grow up in no house. I growed up in a make-shift room with my momma fixed up in the horse stables. My name Simon. I had a son, Jesse. Jesse got Charles and Charles begot Rex and Lewis. Lewis the one jes been talkin. Now, I already lived 103 years and got buried in the grave. But I come to be in this story. I dont know a word of play-acting. But I say, when I here, I jes tellin stories, jes handin down time-old stories. So you jes sit back and listen, real comfortable-like.
Simon, and Jesse after him, tells his history with a verve and charm that’s directed at the audience, but the primary object of seduction is Lewis. There is an urgency to the storytelling, a force driven as much by the specters as by Lewis’s simultaneous need and desire to keep them out. They shake at the cage of who Lewis has created himself to be.
As Rex says, “The dead needs the living just as the livin need the dead.”
REX: (to the audience) My brother watches the story of a black man.
LEWIS: I am in my own story—my life, and you have nothing to do with that life. Besides, you’re not even here. You’re in my mind. Insomnia.
REX: Lewis, you a black man.
LEWIS: A waking dream—
REX: Not a person who happens to be black.
LEWIS: A nightmare—
REX: It’s not an elusive state of being.
Barfield prefaces her play with a quote by W.E.B. DuBois, whose notion of double consciousness set a name to the feeling of being black in America. DuBois defined it in 1903, in his moving, poetic book of essays, personal history and philosophy The Souls of Black Folk:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Blue Door reads like a modern dramatization of DuBois’s notion. (“You got a buncha white people sittin up in your head being your audience,” Rex accuses Lewis. “You livin under a White Gaze.”) But Barfield views the experience through a current lens, a century deeper into assimilation: Lewis’s rigid, rational, over-educated, slightly glib character is a recognizable, truly color-blind portrait of a modern-day yuppie. He has all the marks of a certain class, all members of which have obliterated their ethnic pasts for membership.
Barfield herself comes from Portland, Oregon, and grew up in a white community, mostly with her mom, who is white. “I used to write mostly about contemporary young people—I called them my ‘teenager in crises’ plays,” she says with a wry self-awareness that reveals the source of Lewis’s savvy humor. “A lot of them were white people.”
Most of her plays—“even the ones with white people”—deal with class. “I’ve had many different relationships to money throughout my life,” Barfield explains. “I grew up as a child in many different classes…and worked really hard in day jobs. I’ve always worked. The Lucrative Day Job. And the money I got from that, got me access to things….It’s had a big impact on my identity, although I don’t know that I can articulate how. Maybe I’m a little prouder of that history. And I’m a little more knowledgeable.”
While in the Juilliard playwriting program, she made her first foray into writing about race: a 10-minute play about two slave sisters, a house girl and a field girl, and she began to discover a new voice—or maybe more accurately, new voices. She went on to write Medallion, a 10-minute play for The Antigone Project at The Women’s Project, in which her Antigone is a working-class black woman who petitions the government for a medal of honor for her dead brother, who gave his life and lost his body to WWI. Barfield next received a commission for a children’s musical for Theatreworks USA about a boy who escaped slavery to join the 1st regiment of the Union Army (a regiment which was comprised entirely of escaped slaves, considered contraband of war.)
Stimulated by the research, Barfield launched into a process of discovery. For Blue Door, she immersed herself in documents: slave narratives, transcribed oral histories. There was a lot of overlap and variations in these stories, which she was able to absorb en masse and then channel into her own voice. The result is extremely organic, fluid, and real, yet sharply honed with an often slightly biting, poignant humor.
JESSEOne day, year later, New Boy got a glint in his eye. He say to me, “Jesse, I got one for ya: Two black mens in a automobile drivin down the road. A chicken is crossin the road. The driver slam on the breaks and both he and the passenger is thrown thirty-seven feet outta the car. Now, how come botha them gets put in prison with three charges ‘gainst them?” I say I don’t know. “See, the first charge is fo’ murderin a baby chick. Second one is fo’ defacin the road with skid-marks. Third charge is fo’ fleein thirty-seven feet from the scene of the crime.”
After that, New Boy and me tell each other a story every mornin.
In a deeper sense, the stories she found—particularly as embodied in Simon, with his navigation of the plantation system to create an organic family community—gave Barfield a relationship to a history she never knew she had. She recounts the story of friends who went to visit Africa, and how the Africans they met felt that black Americans have suffered the worst thing possible—not slavery, but separation from their ancestors. No matter how poor they were, they felt black Americans were poorer, because they are psychically impoverished. “And I feel in some ways that I have felt that way in my own life. Because of the separation from an ancestral heritage,” she explains. “Writing Blue Door made me feel a connection.”
As time progresses in its loops around Lewis, he can’t help, as we do, take in the wholeness of his history. As the stories deepen, and humor gives way to the real demons beneath their skin, he learns that, alone, he is never really alone. And that is the gift that letting in the past gives us. As much as his ancestors are haunting him, they’re also keeping him company on this otherwise solitary night. They are, as they will be, ever within him. Throughout the play, first Simon’s mother, then Simon, paint their doors blue in times of crisis, to “Keep the night terrors out. Keep ya soul-family in.” The stories are what stay inside that colored line, even for those, like Lewis, who must venture without.
Tanya’s next project? She hesitates, then laughs. “It’s crazy, epic in scope.” It’s the story of an African American woman, a civil servant, who worked in the White House during the Woodrow Wilson administration. (It’s the follow up to a story she found while researching her Antigone play.) She explains how she discovered that Wilson and Bush had similar foreign policies. But really, she says, “I’m just comforting myself that it has some modern resonance. I’m writing it, because I want to write it.”
Blue Door, written by Tanya Barfield, directed by Leigh Silverman, runs through October 29th at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd Street (between 10th/11th Aves), NYC. For tickets: Ticket Central at www.ticketcentral.com or (212) 279-4200.
Tanya Barfield has been commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, the Mark Taper Forum, Geva Theatre Center and South Coast Repertory. Blue Door will receive productions at Seattle Repertory and Berkeley Repertory in the 2007.
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