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'Blue/Orange' Is a Play About Black Men’s Mental Health, Brought to Life by a Former DJ

It's been 16 years since this play was first staged, and it remains a crucial and urgent a depiction of race, mental health, ethnocentricity, and power.

All photos via Johann Persson

Christopher, a young black Londoner, has reached day 28 of his detention at a psychiatric hospital and wants to go home. His bags are packed. Problem is, he thinks oranges are blue and that Ugandan dictator Idi Amin is his father. His doctor, Bruce, wants to keep him in, afraid that his delusions are pointing to a more serious, psychotic mental illness. But the senior consultant, Robert, believes that Christopher's problems are ethnocentric, that he'll be fine once he's back with his "own community" in London. And besides, there aren't enough beds.

It's been 16 years since Joe Penhall's Olivier award-winning play, Blue/Orange, was written and first staged, and it remains as crucial and urgent a depiction of race, mental health, ethnocentricity, and power—and the place they all collide—as ever. Over the course of two hours, Robert and Bruce, who represent the old guard against the new, sling around their theories of what's best for Christopher. But what becomes increasingly clear is that their patient is merely their pawn, to be seen as an advancement or hindrance to their own careers.

"It's a brilliantly ambiguous play", says Matthew Xia—a former DJ turned director who is behind the new production at London's Young Vic theater. "Even down to whether Christopher is suffering from an acute psychotic episode or a more longterm problem. Depending on what day it is and how I'm feeling I'm team Bruce, then I'm team Robert, and then Bruce again. But ultimately, I can only be team Christopher."

While the conversation around mental health has certainly grown wider and louder since 2000, "what hasn't changed is our ever diminishing pool of resources—money, beds, staff. And so right now, it's at crisis point," Xia says.

Matthew Xia

There's no doubt this revival is timely, but it's the subject of race, and the treatment of black male mental health patients that makes the play so pertinent now. In 2014, the Guardian reported that black men in Britain are 17 times more likely than their white counterparts to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness. Added to that, a study by Lambeth council revealed that nearly 70 percent of the London borough's residents in secure psychiatric units were of African or Caribbean heritage—despite the fact that only 26 percent of Lambeth's population is black. And, as Xia points out, "There is an almost identical issue with the number of black men that we have in our prison system." In the UK, young black men are more likely to be in prison that studying at a top university.

Stigma, cultural barriers, poverty, discrimination, abuse, neglect—there are a host of reasons that contribute to the overrepresentation of black men in the UK's mental health and criminal justice institutions. And what is central to the play is whether, and how far, we can look past race in the treatment of mental illness.

"[In our institutions] there is ethnocentricity at play, stereotyping, misreadings of behaviors, confirmation bias: all these things that get in the way of seeing people as people," Xia says. "I've got a very heavy interest in race, mainly because I don't believe in it. It's a concept, a human construct, and so plays that investigate that in terms of ethnocentricity and cultural behavior I'm fascinated by. We live in a country that has painted various groups of people in particular ways for hundreds and hundreds of years. Nothing is going to undo that anytime soon."

This isn't the first time Xia has dealt with issues of race. He won awards for his production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead—a play about a photographer living in apartheid-era South Africa who starts photographing black women and men whose lives would otherwise go unrecorded and be lost to history. It gained him a reputation as one of Britain's most exciting young directors. Nor will Blue/Orange be the last time he addresses mental health: for his next job he'll direct a new play ,Wish List, which takes a look at mental health, benefit cuts, and what it means to be fit to work. As he puts it, "I'm not interested in making fluffy, nice, and pretty song and dance shows."

Xia hasn't had a conventional route into theater. At 16, he dropped out of school in Leytonstone to pursue a career as a DJ, a decision which would see him perform across the UK and Europe as Excalibah and land a job at Radio 1 Extra. Now, he's associate artistic director at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. And he's still barely 34. "I've had fun," he concedes with a grin.

Still, he admits that it was his drive and ambition that has got him to where he is now. "London has a huge flourishing fringe theater scene—there are more playwrights than photographers it feels like. But it's hard to break into. Individually, theatre's are open. But they're much more than spaces that put on shows—they're community hubs, they galvanize and bolster and embolden."

With that in mind, who, then, does he hope will come and watch Blue/Orange? "When it was done at the National Theatre in 2000, it was almost an exclusively white middle class audience who went to see it," says Xia. "I would love a much broader, diverse London contingent to come and see this production. A lot of theater experiences can be baffling. This isn't baffling in the slightest, it's a very clear story. I think we might be able to knock through some of those barriers."

Blue/Orange is on at the Young Vic in London from May 12 until July 2.

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