What starts out as an ugly case of insomnia caused by Lewis’s personal and marital stress, professional challenges, and cross-road decisions gets even tougher when spirits of four generations of his ancestry come a’calling for reckoning and reflection. And you thought you had a rough night.
Blue Door starts with an ancestral spirit conjuring up memories and musical vibrations, preparing the communication pathway, and ushering in history while James Foster Jr. as Lewis tosses and turns in the large bed on stage. From there, Lewis proceeds to tell his tale, indicating that his wife assumed he was participating in the Million Man March, and when he didn’t she left him shortly thereafter. Why would something like that end a marriage? Using historical legacy, playwright Tanya Barfield explores this unusual tipping point for a couple and shows how this final straw could weaken a marital unit already heavily burdened with enough societal pressures to explode. Her lyrical passages conjure up a backdrop of unresolved and seething issues, images, and memories that exist below the surface with Barfield functioning as an anthropological psychologist, not asking questions to fix anything, just to let them surface and to be acknowledged.
Foster plays Lewis with much at stake, refracting aspects of manhood, particularly black manhood, with all the historical legacy burdens that come with it. He represents the successful and accomplished middle class, but he wrestles with the aftermath of assimilation, including how much of himself and his heritage has he turned away from to embrace the American dream. Who is he now and where does he belong? His ancestral deliberations are exacerbated by the fact that his wife who just has left him after he balked about participating in the March, is white. That tidbit adds a contortionist twist to his questions of cultural and familial duty, allegiance and alliance, juxtaposed with his earnest personal psychological wanderings. The results set up fascinating deliberations that don’t claim to have the answers. It’s enough to simply consider the various premises in a well told tale, and Blue Door does that and more.
First of all, the casting is right on target. Foster brings a deliberate and measured control to his character, displaying just enough angst and bewilderment to portray someone stuck in the crevices of a sleepless night. He is tightlipped and grimacing while trying to smile while shouldering the impact of his decisions. His somber night is beautifully balanced by a shining glimmer of light in the form of Derrick LeMont Sanders who is a shape shifting wonder. From the conjuring griot in the opening scene, Sanders plays a range of generational characters throughout Lewis’s history, including his own hell-raising, bent for trouble with the law brother. He floats effortlessly from one spot to another with a change of a beret, a dropped gaze, altered vocal cadence, and adjusted stance and gait. He adds a startlingly fresh dimension to his characters– you see them, you hear them and know them in a heartbeat with just a few quick twists. The two actors produce heartfelt scenes of unforgettable resonance, masterminded by award winning and seasoned director Walter Dallas. This quiet thought provoking story doesn’t have the flashy “torn form the headlines” appeal, but instead poses reflections for anyone who has had similar familiar queries of wondering.
Touching moments abound, not the least of which come from the ghostly appearance of Rex, Lewis’s brother, who died during foul play. The play deals beautifully with the sometimes schizophrenic aspects of the black middle class, who strive for socioeconomic parity while dealing with social construct realities of class and race. The term, “blue door” by the way, comes from African America folklore steeped in African tradition of keeping evil spirits and harm out of one’s home — the large door on the set, designed by Timothy Jones, serves as a constant reminder of early culturally-based defensive efforts.
If Tanya Barfield’s name has a smidgen of familiarity, you might be remembering her quirky Pecan Tan that was also mounted by the then ACT-Co in its heyday. The writer’s return to this familiar site is a sign that good things continue to gravitate to the African Continuum Theatre Company. . Now in its fourteenth season, it continues to survive lean times of being down but certainly not out, is touting a current “Season of Strength” banner, and has again proven its substantive merit with the recent Helen Hayes award to actress Deidra LaWan Starnes for her turn in Intimate Apparel.
Blue Door is a wonderfully crafted reminder that we come from a stock of experiences of those who have gone before us. Barfield writes, “It is only through memory that the soul of an ancestor is kept alive.” We don’t have to be limited or bound by such memories — it’s enough to know that they are there.
by Tanya Barfield
directed by Walter Dallas
produced by African Continuum Theatre Company
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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