Emmy-nominated Carolyn Ratteray on Bermuda family and Black play
A framed photograph of the post-Emancipation-era shipbuilder, Charles Roach Ratteray, decorates the set of Both And (A Play About Laughing While Black).
Beside it sits another of Oswald Ratteray, whose daughter, Carolyn, created and stars in the California show.
“The photos are there as a reminder that I stand on their shoulders,” she said.
Both And has been getting a lot of attention since it opened at the Boston Court Pasadena on April 7. Reviewers have called it “mesmerising” and “magical”.
“It was so successful that an extra week had to be added,” Ms Ratteray said. “So many people came out to see it.”
The play is about a young woman who struggles to help her dying mother “cross over”.
As described in the synopsis: “The journey reveals the wisdom of the ancestors, invokes the legacy of the Middle Passage, and unfolds the surprising secrets within her mother’s purse.”
Both And is also about the inheritance of racial trauma and reclaiming a sense of Black joy.
“We have trauma inherited from the enslavement era that is profound,” said Ms Ratteray. “It is about saying that trauma and history is mine to honour but not mine to carry.”
In the one-woman play, she uses a clown to convey a sense of joy.
“Clown is studied in all of the top acting graduate schools, because the process of finding one’s ‘clown’ involves breaking down your walls. It is a process of becoming vulnerable, falling into love and falling into joy. That process is an incredibly healing one, but also cynical and brutal.
“When you tap into the world of the clown it is a world of poetry and the world of pure joy. That was intriguing to me. I wondered if I could put the logic of the clown and the logic of this world together on the stage. I wondered what the clown could teach us about letting go and the grieving process.”
The idea for Both And came out of a theatre workshop she took at an artists’ retreat in 2015. One of the exercises was to write a two-minute “piece of sh*t”.
“It was a brilliant exercise,” she said. “When you call something a ‘little piece of sh*t’ there is no expectation to be brilliant, which can inhibit creation and art.”
A $20,000 grant from the Los Angeles New Play Project helped move Both And forward.
“A large part of that went to the Boston Court Pasadena to produce it,” she said. “I also got a chunk of it.”
Ms Ratteray has appeared in the ABC medical drama Gray’s Anatomy and the long-running soap opera The Young & The Restless. She has also done voiceovers, written plays and films, and is an assistant professor of theatre at Pomona College. In 2019 she was nominated for an Emmy award for best supporting actress in the LezWatch.tv television series Riley Parra.
She believes she inherited her versatility from her grandfather George Oswald Ratteray, a long-distance runner, blacksmith and missionary who was also president of the Legislative (later the Senate) from 1969 to 1980 and was knighted by the Queen.
Ms Ratteray’s father often talked about him.
“I heard stories about my grandfather’s resourcefulness; how he explored and excelled at multiple things,” she said. “My father talked about how he had multiple passions; how he pushed himself to expand his potential and capabilities.”
She often thinks of Sir George as she pursues her career as an artist.
“You have to be multifaceted in this industry,” she said. “I never met him, but I feel that he is with me.”
Her father moved to the United States in 1969 and married her mother, Joan Davis.
At age 8 Ms Ratteray took part in a two-week acting programme at the Smithsonian. Her first play was based on her father’s stories about his family.
Her parents were deeply inspirational. They ran the Institute for Independent Education, helping American independent Black schools get better teacher training and accreditation.
Ms Ratteray attended a mostly White private school, but her parents worked hard to fill in gaps and biases they saw in terms of Black history and culture.
“They gave me books about Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Frantz Fanon and grounded me in a context that centred my identity,” she said. “I credit my mother and father so much for this. They made sure I was grounded in the history of the African diaspora and the history of where I was coming from.”
She visited Bermuda for the first time when she was 14.
“To a child who grew up in the city it was magical,” she said. “We stayed with my aunt Veronica Ross and visited my father’s brother George Ratteray. It was wonderful to be surrounded by all those relatives. They all lived down the road in the same small area.”
She found mention of the Ratteray family at The Commissioner’s House Museum in Dockyard.
“It said we were one of Bermuda’s oldest families,” she said.
Her father, who died in 2013, learnt about his ancestors from online genealogy websites and stories shared by relatives.
“His love for his family was touching,” said Ms Ratteray, who now lives in Los Angeles.
She is hoping to eventually get Both And on the road.
“I would love to be able to bring it to Bermuda,” she said.
• For more information: carolynratteray.com; bostoncourtpasadena.org