Reg E. Cathey, half of Tanya Barfield’s two-hander “Blue Door,” knows what to do with his hands. For much of his perf as Lewis, a tormented African-American mathematician, they’re motionless, resting on his thighs. Lewis speaks to us directly about his fractured racial identity, and his stillness compels attention to his words and the deep shades of his voice. Even when he jokes, this frozen man seems rapt by the cultural history that dominates his mind.
Lewis’ mind is also the literal setting of the play. As he talks about losing his wife — a white woman who filed for divorce because he wasn’t proud enough to go on the Million Man March — he stands in a cozy study, but set designer Narelle Sissons lines its edges with dirt and tall grass. Meanwhile, the classical music on the record player keeps changing into Yoruba songs. No matter how he tries, the man can’t erase his ancestors.
Played by Andre Holland, those ancestors move like Lewis doesn’t. Holland has the range to enliven several generations of the mathematician’s family, from Rex, his politically rebellious brother, to Simon, his slave-born great-grandfather. They may be dead, but these men barrel through Lewis’ thoughts. They interrupt his tales of divorce by telling their own stories, and they argue with Lewis about his relationship to himself and the white society he keeps.
The contrast of the perfs, expertly balanced by director Leigh Silverman, helps the show ask a fascinating question. How could a man descended from so many survivors — we hear tales of sexual abuse, lynching and bigotry — be so gray with self-loathing?
Barfield suggests there is no simple cause for this crisis. She shows how each family story — even the triumphant ones — helps Lewis retain the self-hatred created by slavery.
This could lead to some maudlin scenes, but the writing never asks for pity. Instead, demons are faced with humor and incisive metaphors.
Looking out at the crowd, for instance, Rex asks his brother who controls his psyche. “You got a bunch of white people sittin’ up in your head being your audience,” Rex scolds. “You livin’ under a White Gaze.” That’s a jab not only at Lewis and those like him, but also at a theater industry struggling to change the Wonder Bread hue of its subscriber base.
Not all of the play’s statements are so complex. Though she depicts myriad ways in which Lewis inherited his turmoil, Barfield tries to give it a quick fix. Her solution hinges on the titular blue door, which several generations of Lewis’ family say will keep the “bad spirits” out and keep the “soul-family” in.
This philosophy results in a redemptive moment that’s far too easy to be honest. A symbolic light cue and an improbable bit of stage business are no match for Lewis’ powerful dilemma.
A wan parting shot, however, can’t undo the otherwise impressive craft of script and production. On the whole, “Blue Door” finds the urgent life in centuries of memory.