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PlayMakers Repertory Company’s newest presentation, Blue Door, is, on the surface, a confrontation between a modern man and his historical past. But Tanya Barfield’s play becomes much more than that. Steeped in Black History, the story tells us of the modern African-American mathematics professor, Lewis, who is alone the night following the departure of his wife of 25 years. Supposedly, it is because Lewis has refused to join the 1995 Million Man March, simply because he cannot find its relevance to his own life. But this refusal of his own ancestry is the final straw for his wife, who tells him that being his wife is a very lonely experience.
These conversations are revealed during the course of the play, which runs a full two hours without intermission. This is, apparently, a late decision on the part of the director, Trezana Beverley, as there is an intermission announced in the program. It becomes evident, as the altercation between Lewis and his ancestors unfolds, that there simply is no place in this work to fit an intermission. Beverley joins PRC for her seventh season with Blue Door, bringing her celebrated directing style, which she calls “DanzActing.” Beverley continues to act as well as direct; she performed Medea earlier this year and will play the king in King Lear in February of 2009.
Lewis is performed here by Sam Wellington, who worked with Trezana Beverley previously in PlayMakers’ production of Yellowman. Lewis, who has been a tenured professor at a small university for 23 years, spends this sleepless night in his now-empty home, after his wife has left after declaring she is filing for divorce. Dramatist Tanya Barfield tells us that Lewis has been married to his white wife for 25 years; and now that she is gone, he is lost. Doing his best to pass what will be an endless night, he reads a short poem that calls on “Grandfather,” again and again, to give him peace. Having been conjured in this way, Great Simon, Lewis’ great-grandfather, appears.
Blue Door is a two-man play; and all of Lewis’ relatives, including his seemingly Black Panther-ish brother Rex, are played by Lelund Durond Thompson in his PRC debut. Lewis is now the only living descendent of his family and has had no children. The line will die with him. This seems to make it even more imperative that he learn, again, all of the past that he left behind him when his father, Charles, died. He did not attend the funeral. This does not seem unusual when we learn that Charles had badly beaten his elder son, breaking two ribs and a collarbone, because Lewis had brought home bad grades from his private school.
Sam Wellington’s Lewis begins his journey through this dreamscape in a mode of denial, both of events recently and long since past. But Thompson, arriving as Simon, is bright, alive, and full of all the spirit that Lewis lacks. Whether dissolving into brother Rex or switching to grandfather Jesse, Thompson is an irresistible force. But he fights against the immovable will of a man who for a quarter-century has denied his very blackness. And the battle to enter the mind of this man, who so desperately needs to learn, is a horrid one. The memories that he has locked away in his own mind are ferreted out and revealed, as this series of ancestors visits and revisits them.
The stage is set by scenic designer Marion Williams, who has designed a number of sets for PlayMakers, including Topdog/Underdog and Cyrano de Bergerac. Lewis and his ghosts do battle on a nearly empty thrust stage. Alone on a platform a step above the Paul Green stage is Lewis’ reading chair in his study. But the rest of the house, as Lewis himself states, is empty. The only other set piece is upstage center, a huge family tree that brings together all of Lewis’ history. And Simon begat Jesse, who begat Charles, who begat Lewis and Rex. But the story is a bloody one, and one of misery, not only brought upon these characters by their own actions, but by the actions of the White Man. Simon began his life as a slave. It is a history, both ancient and terribly close, that Lewis cannot bear, and cannot leave.
Simon, Jesse, and Rex bring to Lewis something that has been a part of their lives since Simon was a little boy. Jesse’s mother tells him that they must now, in time of trouble, get a bucket of indigo and paint the front door blue. This, she tells him, will bring peace and safety. Simon, finally, gets this point across to Lewis; and in his waking sleep, Lewis and Simon paint his Blue Door. It is this tradition, and Simon’s final blessing, that finally bring enough peace to Simon to let him rest, and remember.
Playwright Tanya Barfield brings up several questions in her meditation on Black History, including many on how, or even whether, history effects each of us as individuals. But in a history that is still fighting to bring the black man and woman into an equality with their former owners, it is a story that must be told and repeated, not only so the white man understands it, but so the black man does, too. The Chronicles of the Black Man are ultimately the tales of black men. Their oral history continues, and must be handed down. In this time, when history may be made in both the election and the economy, History is one reality that no one, regardless of color, can afford to ignore.
Barfield’s compelling work is brought masterfully to the stage in Beverley’s spectacular production, by two brilliant and sparkling actors who progress along a march of their own. Sam Wellington and Lelund Durond Thompson bring a reality to the play that is savage and cannot be ignored. Yet it is through this march to reason that a quarter-century of denial is finally erased. That we are able to witness it is an experience not to be missed.
For additional performances, see the CVNC theatre calendar.