Tiny Emigrant Theater mounts a weighty
We all carry some degree of baggage that affects who we are and how we see and project ourselves. In Blue Door, playwright Tanya Barfield looks at the tonnage that an African-American man must heft, as she explores identity, racism, denial and the cost of success. Emigrant Theater's production is forceful, painful and heavy in its own right.
Lewis is a black mathematician, a university professor, published and successful. He's the first person in his family to earn a degree, let alone a Ph.D. As the play opens, he is in crisis. He's on forced sabbatical, and his white wife of some 20 years has left him. She has long been troubled by his disassociation from himself. His unacknowledged dilemma? In his drive to succeed as his alcoholic father demanded, he pursued excellence and repressed a difficult history; now, he cannot belong in the white world to which he has ascended, or in his black past.
In a night wracked with insomnia, this two-person play takes place in Lewis's mind as he reconciles generations of pain. Three ancestors slide in and out of his consciousness, tell the family stories and confront his abandonment of his heritage.
David Eulus Wiles plays Lewis, a role made challenging by its relative passivity, as he listens and reflects with dispassion. This dispassion parallels his chosen discipline, mathematics, a cool, precise and logical field that is far removed from his inner tension. When he briefly assumes the role of Lewis's abusive and cheated father, Wiles burns hot with fury. Wiles' Lewis engages the audience's interest, but when he speaks from backstage, he needs to raise his head and project his voice. In one scene, Lewis and his grandfather Jesse recite a Dickensian poem in alternating lines, but I could only hear Jesse's words, and I was sitting well forward.
Lewis's great grandfather Simon, his grandfather Jesse and his dead younger brother Rex, are all nimbly played by Eric Avery, whose warm eyes and appealing ways contrast with Lewis's controlled intellect. In brief encounters, Avery captures the breadth and intelligence of each character. Great Simon is a slave with initiative. Grandfather Jesse learns to read when it's against the law for a slave to read. After emancipation, he struggles in a world stacked against him. He's a charming and determined man who resists threats from "ghosts" (the Ku Klux Klan) not to vote.
In a welcome moment of amusement, Avery softens his body, drapes himself on the steps of the set's platform and becomes a white woman at a tea party, revealing her confusion at meeting a black man as a peer who does not conform to her stereotype of black-man-as-threat. In response to her reaction, Lewis reveals his inner racism, fed by his own self-dislike, that shuts down his ability to converse.
Rex is Lewis's dead younger bother, who embraced his blackness and who confronts Lewis' choice to succeed at the price of losing himself. "Who is your audience?" he asks.
It's a question that we all should answer. Are we are own audience, or do we play to outside audiences and their expectations? Under Jessica's Finney's subtle direction, Blue Door taps fascinating layers. The play takes place in one character's imagination, and yet it is self-consciously a performance, aimed at an audience in a theater. Lewis has a dread of the countryside and trees; as the play unfolds his family tree, the reason for his anxiety becomes clear.
Erica Zaffarano's simple set speaks to Lewis's dilemma. A central raised platform is a refined though empty space, save for a rug, a modern armchair, a lamp and books. Aggressively slanted palings flare away from either side of the platform, like a stockade built to contain live property.
At one-and-a-half hours long, I found Blue Door affecting and authentic-feeling and, by the very weight of its subject, it is rich but heavy fare.
Arguably, the most interesting work at the Guthrie is happening on the Dowling Studio black-box stage.
Blue Door, January 17 - 27, 2008. Thursdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday 23, 7:30 p.m. Matinees Sundays 20 and 27 and Saturday 27. Tickets $18 - $34. 612- 377-2224 or www.guthrietheater.org and www.emigranttheatre.org. Emigrant Theater, playing at the Dowling Studio, Guthrie Theater, 818, South 2nd St., Minneapolis.