Keep the good spirits in, keep the ghosts out. According to the mother of a young man named Simon, that's the reason for painting a doorway blue, and as both mother and son are slaves living some 15 years before the Civil War, it could well be life-saving advice. But can black men today, living under a different kind of oppression, find their own salvation as easily?
That's the question Tanya Barfield addresses in her new play Blue Door, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons. While the search for the answer wends through some murky territory, there's plenty of clarity in Barfield's writing or Leigh Silverman's production: As dreams bring real life into clearer focus, so too do the playwright and director's approaches highlight the uncomfortable similarities between slavery of the body and slavery of the mind.
This is done with only two actors, Reg E. Cathey and André Holland, who chart four generations of one family, from the slavery days to 1995. Lewis (Cathey), the last branch of this family tree, is currently suffering from insomnia instigated by the tangle his world has become since his white wife left him for refusing to join the Million Man March. But his life has always been awash in uncertainty because of his skin color, not least because his father demanded the best and was not above inflicting abuse when he didn't get it, hitting Lewis hard enough to "beat the black outta" him. Have the years of schooling that led him to become a mathematics professor and a published author now accomplished the same thing?
"I can't not be black," Lewis says, almost as if it's a shameful admission. But those words summon up more than just his confused identity: They rouse Lewis's long-dead brother Rex, his grandfather Jesse, and his great-grandfather Simon (Holland plays all three), who are determined to convince Lewis of the importance of his family and skin color in a world that pays little respectful attention to either.
The stories these good spirits tell don't lack in joy or pain, and Barfield sensitively draws parallels between them and Lewis's predicaments to show how far we've come. (The contrasts between the story of Jesse's horrific public death, which occurred when he attempted to vote, and Lewis's tense encounter with an obstinate student, are particularly sobering.) Once we begin this journey, the interplay between Lewis, who's spent his life trying to live up to impossibly high (in many cases, white) expectations, and the relatives whose lives and deaths created those expectations, transcends race to become a universally meaningful examination of how the ephemeral past can bolster an equally uncertain present.
It takes Barfield a while to get up to speed with her storytelling, however. The earlier portions of the play, before the full complement of Holland's characters is introduced, feel like individual testimonies at a self-help seminar, packed with too many personal revelations that don't strike with the intended force. (Lewis's divorce is presented with an almost parodic off-handedness; Simon's anecdote about his sexual abuse at the hands of the young man teaching him to read and write adds nothing tangible to the story.) This might lead you to wonder whether the pieces will ever really come together.
But as the performers soldier on, they become instrumental in creating a swirling, affecting collage of personal, familial, and racial histories. Holland especially impresses, using minute shifts in voice, manner, and costume to create a sizeable ensemble of characters that overwhelm Cathey's portrayal of Lewis, which seldom rises above one annoyed note. When the play requires Cathey to hit that note, especially in scenes set in Lewis's passive-aggressively racist university or with his disapproving father, Lewis becomes just the fractured, disappointed human being who would believably need this form of therapy to come to his senses.
Without this quality innately visible in Lewis throughout, the connections between the past and present take longer than they should to solidify. Even Silverman struggles early on in finding the pacing and feeling necessary to properly anchor the show in the world of waking dreams, leaving the vast expanse of Narelle Sissons's set and the muted palette of Mary Louise Geiger's lights feeling more constraining than liberating.
But when everything comes together, as happens with increasing frequency as the conclusion approaches, Blue Door becomes unavoidably involving. If the play's closing images, like its emotions, hold few surprises, they're firm reminders of the importance of remembering, in considering who we are and where we're going, the heritage that helped us get there in the first place.