Many actors and playwrights channel their experiences into original productions, but the InterAct NOLA's musical Funky Times at the Blue Door Shack is a unique project. The cast is mostly comprised of mentally challenged participants who combine original sketches and songs to bring the mystical Blue Door Shack to life.
The mythical speakeasy was "built back in the day when people didn't have no place to go to feel free to express themselves," says actress Kim Champagne.
The show features both upbeat numbers and songs examining the feelings of rejection many mentally disabled people encounter. The Blue Door Shack serves as a haven of acceptance.
"You always pickin' on me/ talkin 'bout me, staring at me," sings Champagne, who plays Sasha, the star singer of the Blue Door Shack. "Can't you see that you always suffocate me?"
New Orleans hip-hop artist Nasimiyu "Simi" Murumba wrote and directed the play.
"I try to be the glue that ties their ideas together without putting in too many of my own," Murumba says. "This is a place where your imagination is your vehicle, and there's no sense of anyone pulling you back and harnessing you in. Everyday experiences with this population are like, 'Ok, you're speaking too loud, you're not sitting in the right place ...' so theater is the place where there's no rules."
For Murumba, who also performs in the play, the first of many lessons she learned working with the group was being able to gauge everyone's skill levels. "We want the melody to just come through clearly and knock you out of your seat," she says. "That means not everybody is gonna be able to sing. That also means that not all the singers will be able to dance. So it's been a process of getting to know each person individually to find out what their voice is. That's why you hear this reoccuring theme of 'finding your voice.'"
The actors play themselves, trying to find a voice and a medium of expression in real life at the same time as their characters do at the Blue Door Shack. In the play, a quiet server named Marie struggles to find her voice among the many talented patrons of the Blue Door Shack, and it becomes apparent the character parallels the actress' experiences.
Interact NOLA is a project of Arc of Greater New Orleans, which serves people with developmental disabilities in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes. The participants started working on the production in January. It debuts at Westwego Performing Arts Theatre and there are performances at Nunez Community College and Cafe Istanbul in the following weeks. — MATTHEW HOSE