By Lawrence Toppman
The Charlotte Observer
It’s easy to forget how young a country we have.
My father has lived through more than 20 percent of the events that have occurred since the first Pilgrims landed in 1620. As a boy, I lived with a woman whose uncle had fought in the Civil War.
For us, history isn’t enshrined in the stained-glass windows of churches or books whose languages we can’t read. It sits heavily on top of us, in recent memory for those who care to remember. Those who don’t can look away from the ugliness but may never be whole.
That’s one of the themes of “Blue Door,” and playwright Tanya Barfield makes a thoughtful, often entertaining argument for this belief.
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and director Chip Decker have worked out the right balance between reality and fantasy for the 95-minute play, which has no intermission.
Math professor Lewis (Brian Daye), grounded and solid, stands mostly at center stage. Figures from his past and previous generations, all embodied by slender Jeremy DeCarlos, bob and weave and come at him from the side, like a lighter boxer scoring off a slower heavyweight. But by the play’s climax they move, sit and even sing together.
The title refers to the slave tradition that painting a door blue warded off evil spirits. But Lewis has warded off all spirits: He wants to forget the lynched grandfather, the father who beat him for bad report cards, the brother who overdosed on drugs. Lewis doesn’t want to hear about slave days or even his days. (The play is set in 1995; his wife left after he refused to join the Million Man March.)
He wants to live in a realm of pure intellect, where math gives order to life and problems have solutions on which all can agree. But the spirits insist he can never be a whole person until he accepts everything that made him what he is, including years of pain.
Barfield also asks us to consider what it means to be “authentically” African-American. Is Lewis less legitimately black than his ancestors because he strives to impress white colleagues? Is he less black than his brother, who talked in street slang and joined social movements?
Barfield answers the question by making it irrelevant: Neither intelligence nor ignorance, squareness or hipness, has anything to do with color.
The play is almost, though not quite, too complex for its brief running time. (Actor’s Theatre has helpfully provided a timeline in the program, though the progression of events seemed clear to me.)
Barfield trusts the actor playing four generations of characters to distinguish among them with voices, body positions and expressions, and the chameleonic DeCarlos does a superb job of keeping us informed and connected to these people at all times.
In a way, Daye has the harder task: Though he occasionally speaks in the voice of Lewis’ angry father or resigned wife, he mainly has to portray a man who has always been uncomfortable examining and expressing himself.
If DeCarlos’ characters are collectively like an ever-changing vial of mercury, Lewis first seems like an unemotional lump of lead. But through the alchemy of “Blue Door,” that lead finally shows signs of turning into gold.