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Blue Door review at Ustinov Studio, Bath – ‘two fine performances’

Ray Fearon and Fehinti Balogun in Blue Door at the Ustinov Studio. Photo: Simon Annand
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Blue Door is the name given by some African Americans to the ancestral belief that painting door frames in this colour would ward off evil spirits. It is also the title of Tanya Barfield’s odyssey through 125 years of Black American history that brings a haunting, compelling quality to the second offering in the Ustinov Studio season of UK premieres from the Americas.

Lewis is a prominent maths professor, played by Ray Fearon with a potent combination of anger and puzzlement. He is experiencing a sleepless night after his white wife has left him after 25 years, no longer able to put up with his failure to accept his black identity.

In the fashion of A Christmas Carol, he is visited by the ghosts of three generations of his ancestors – all brought to vivid life by Fehinti Balogun – who combine reflections of past abuses with a musical mix of African chants, blues and gospel tunes to bring him to terms with the disturbing legacies of the past.

Barfield does not steer clear of the oppression and violence meted out to Lewis’ ancestors, and the dialects and constant monologues do not make for an easy narrative. But director Eleanor Rhode does find some welcome humour and humanity in the exploration of the lingering effects of memory, within Madeleine Girling’s bare woodland box set and Elliot Griggs’ harsh spotlighting. The two players’ musical duets also suggest that all is not lost for Lewis, especially in the moving conclusion.

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Two fine performances point up the legacy of pain for Black Americans