Review: `Blue Door’

Opened April 11, 2007, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Race, family issues enter through Berkeley Rep’s Blue Door
Three stars Intriguing identity quest

There’s a simple, shared driving force underneath our complex lives: We all want to – need to – know who we are.

The quest to find our self-identity – our truest selves – is a lifelong pursuit in which answers and realizations only lead to more questions.

According to playwright Tanya Barfield, we are all full of stories stretching back to the very first story, and knowing those stories leads to “a greater personhood.’’

Such is the premise of Barfield’s Blue Door, which opened Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a production directed by Oakland-based film and TV actor Delroy Lindo.

An African-American mathematician, Lewis (David Fonteno), is suffering a dark night of the soul. His wife of 25 years, a white woman, has left him because he refused to participate in the Million Man March, and the ghost of his dead brother keeps telling him he’s “afraid to be black.’’

During this night – or at least in the 90 minutes we see of it – Lewis is visited by three ghosts (all played by the dynamic Teagle F. Bougere): his great-great-grandfather, Simon, a slave; his grandfather, Jesse, born into slavery but freed; and his brother Rex, dead from a drug overdose.

It’s a little like A Christmas Carol but with complex race issues instead of Fezziwigs.

The first hurdle for Lewis comes in the form of an argument with his brother – the bad son compared to Lewis’ as ultra-achiever good son – who says Lewis, in his mathematician’s ivory tower, has committed the sin of assimilation. He’s a “white devil in black skin’’ whose story is being told to a white audience (and sure enough, when he points at the audience, it’s filled with a lot of white faces), and he lives his life “under a white gaze.’’

Lewis counters, rather weakly, that he is an example of progress and success in which race has been less of factor than drive and intelligence.


It seems these arguments inevitably end in accusations of self-loathing and success at the cost of cultural identity.

When the identity of an entire race is subverted by another – as Americans (among others) did to Africans – the ripples echo through generations. Barfield’s attempt to tell some of these generational stories and reclaim as much of the shared past as possible is what gives Blue Door its heft and its heart.

Dealing with Lewis and his modern problems, the play falters. But when Barfield conjures the past through of Simon and Jesse, the play surges with passion, courage and lyrical beauty in the face of horror.

Fonteno as Lewis has to navigate a sort of Prince of Tides soul reclamation project. But Bougere fully engages with stories of plantation life, of family bonds, of nightmarish injustice, of bravery, of lynching – of surviving.

He sings songs (written by Barfield) and connects in powerful, compassionate ways to the notion that the past and the present connect in more ways than we know.

Director Lindo guides his two actors through a handsome production (graceful set by Kate Edmunds, lights by Kathy A. Perkins) with a strong guiding hand. He can’t quite overcome Barfield’s tidy psychological cleansing of Lewis’ deepest issues.

Still, the performances are striking – especially Bougere’s – and the notion of painting a door blue to keep good spirits in and ghosts out becomes this dark night’s deeply felt “God bless us, everyone.’’

For information about “Blue Door,’’ visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

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