By Jacqueline E. Lawton, dramaturg for Blue Door.
Jacequline E. Lawton: In Blue Door, we follow a family, from father to son, from Simon all the way to Lewis. What was your impulse to make your central figures men?
Tanya Barfield: People have often asked why I wrote a male story. Fortunately, African-American men of Lewis’s age have embraced the play. I didn’t “decide” on the play when I sat down to write it. If I had, I probably would have chosen to employ African-American women since there are fewer great roles written for women. But, the characters that spoke to me were male and so I wrote them. Perhaps, this is because there are more men in family; perhaps, this is because my African-American legacy is traced through my father.
The play follows Lewis’ journey of self discovery. This journey is sometimes very painful and difficult for him, but it is also quite funny, touching and very rewarding. What part of Lewis’ character do you most relate to?
I relate to Lewis’s drive to prove himself. I relate to his awareness of his own “otherness.”
It’s not easy to write a play that connects so deeply and honestly with audiences and also proves to stand the test of time. What do think it is about this particular play, this story, these characters that continues to resonate with audiences today?
Ultimately, I believe there is an universality to Lewis’s story. Storytelling and song has preserved many cultures’ communal identity and history. Oral history is not uniquely African-American. The Odyssey, The Iliad, and the Scandinavian Sagas are only a few famous examples from other cultures. It is my hope that many of the themes explored in Blue Door are ones in which people of any culture can relate to. 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?
Each time I read Blue Door, I am struck by the notion that the math theories that Lewis’ teaches are happening to him. How did you discover this part of the story? Did you always know that Lewis’ was a mathematician?
There’s a line Lewis has in the play where he says, “I want to rise above the drudgery of existence and apprehend the eternal verities.” I spoke with a mathematician about the play (in order to verify that all the math was possible and accurate), and I asked, “Does it make sense to you that Lewis is a mathematician?” And he said, “Absolutely!” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “I can’t think of anything else he would be.” And I said, “Because I think the reason it’s interesting to me that Lewis is a mathematician is because not only does he want to get beyond race, he wants to get beyond the self.” I’m talking about the physical body, the drudgery of existence that everyone experiences – not just black people. And he wants to reach a higher plane – perfect symmetry of the world – the master design which is mathematical. And there’s that beauty in math that he’s looking for. So, it’s not only that he uses math to escape himself. He uses math in pursuit of something greater than the self.
Throughout Lewis’ journey, we meet his ancestors, all the people who lived, loved, and struggled for survival, so that Lewis could exist. Did you always know that he would be visited by his ancestors, that that would be necessary for his survival?
I wrote the character of Simon first. Simon’s voice was very strong, so I just kept writing Simon. I listened to Simon, and eventually, I said to myself, “Well, who needs to hear Simon? Am I going to write a play just because Simon’s talking to me?” And that’s how Lewis was born, because I felt that Lewis needed to hear Simon. And all the other characters came after that.
Blue Door dramatizes the old adage: “If you don’t know where you came from, how can you know where you’re going.” In interviews you have spoken about feelings of “separation from an ancestral heritage” and that writing this play helped you feel more connected. What do you feel is lost for a people who have no immediate sense of their ancestry?
There is a spiritual mindset handed down from the West African Adinkra people. It’s the belief in “sankofa.” Sankofa literally translates: “Go back and fetch it” – meaning go back to your roots in order to move forward. This point of view is loosely incorporated into the beliefs of many African-Americans today. Sankofa is symbolized iconically by a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward and holding an egg in its mouth. I was not think about sankofa while writing Blue Door, but in reexamining the play, I can only muse that this perspective was at least partially motivating my creative process.
What message do you feel this play has at a time in America’s history when an African American is now president of the United States?
I would be curious to see/hear the play with a post-Obama audience. Certainly, the “Beer Summit” reminds me that many of the issues in the play have not died as President Obama’s election may have originally made us surmise. Like so many black Americans, I cried when Obama was elected president. For me, the inauguration was resonant (but not the same, of course) of how Simon may have felt on the day he learned of his freedom. It was a dream Simon could barely imagine. I wrote Blue Door two years before most of America had ever heard of Barack Obama. If you had told me at that time that in two years a black man would be president, I would have laughed in your face. It was a dream I could not imagine. Blue Door is about moments in time; moments that are a piece of a legacy. For me, Barack Obama is a piece of the African-American experience. But, more than that, he represents part of the American experience. However cruel the post-slavery years of Jim Crow were, I am also interested in the moment of history in which Simon and Katie felt hope. That is why a moment of hope is the play’s climax – the last monologue in the play.
When the play was first performed, what surprised you most about it? If you have seen any recent productions, what continues to surprise you?
My surprise has been delight. It’s deeply humbling to have talented actors, designers and a director come together to work on my words. The first time I heard from audience members how the story touched them was humbling. The laughter and sniffles that came from the audience, the gasps, the questions — all of that is what a playwright wishes for. I admit, I haven’t seen recent productions of the play. Blue Door has been so significant for me as an artist and as a person, it would be easy for me to want to meddle in every production, but I’ve chosen to let the play be.
When researching Blue Door, you have spoken about listening to oral histories and reading books about slavery, and also folktales. How did you decide what stories would be told?
I wrote reams of material (about all the characters) that did not make it into the play. I’ve never written so much material for a play that did not make it into the final draft. It was a phenomenal amount of material to discard. I like many of the stories that didn’t make it into the final draft. Indeed a huge chunk of the play was rewritten after the world-premiere at South Coast Repertory. The published version of the play is the off-Broadway production from Playwrights Horizons.
Do you think any of these stories would make their way into another play some day?
I used to think I might write a companion play. People have often asked when I’m going to write “The Women of Blue Door?” But, I think the play stands alone. I admire writers that write trilogies and such, but Lewis feels isolated to me and therefore there may be a singularity to his story. I’m not sure.
Speaking of which, what next for you as a writer?
I try not to talk about my work while I am “in process.” I find the intellectual discussion of my work can be an interrupter. So, for that reason, I’ll stay silent.
Part 1 of Jacqueline’s interview with Tanya can be found here.