Exploring Self-Identity through Conversations with Ancestors
By Yuko Kurahashi
The MOXIE Theatre production of Blue Door by Tanya Barfield, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, portrays a middle-aged African-American mathematics professor Lewis’s search for his identity and history by bearing witness to the paths of his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father.
Set in the bedroom of his apartment in 1995, Lewis opens the play with a monolog about his wife of 25 years (she never appears on stage) who has just left him, asking for a divorce. According to Lewis, his wife, who is white, is divorcing him because he would not participate in the Million Man March. This historical march held on October 16, 1995, was led by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan who called for black men to gather in Washington, D.C. to reflect and change their roles both in the private and public spheres. Lewis explains his unwillingness to participate in this historical event disappointed his wife.
However, as the play progresses, the real “problem” begins to unfold; the rift between the couple has existed since the beginning of their relationship. Incidents in Lewis’s past are intertwined with his ancestral stories, allowing Lewis to re-examine his own process of assimilation and compromise.
Vimel Sephus, as Lewis, clarifies that his ambivalence about his racial heritage results from his position in academia and his survival there. With his distinct diction and presence Sephus highlights Barfield’s humorous and poetic lines. For example, he enacts Lewis’s wife’s judgmental presumption and condescending attitude. Sephus also brings to life Lewis’s parochial, self-righteous, “liberal” colleagues in the math department.
Cortez L. Johnson portrays Lewis’s brother Rex who died from a drug overdose. He takes Lewis on a journey to see the persecution, perseverance, and persistence that Lewis’s ancestors have gone through. Johnson’s youthful, sometimes mischievous and charming demeanors fit his surrealistic roles, serving as a messenger who reprimands and also encourages Lewis to reclaim his past and racial and cultural heritage.
With her designers, Turner Sonnenberg exquisitely theatricalizes the realistic and surrealistic worlds of Barfield. Victoria Petrovich’s set consists of a large platform (to indicate Lewis’s bedroom) with a bed, nightstands (with vases and a lamp), and a chair (Angelica Ynfante, prop designer). Off-platform areas (stage left, right, and downstage) are used to suggest different times and locations of Lewis’s ancestors.
Among theatrical elements in Blue Door, trees serve, most prominently, as a metaphor for the paradox of cultural and existential difference between races. Petrovich creates multi-layered tree motifs on the screens and flats. The tree motifs reflect Lewis’s wife’s “Feng Shui” principles in her interior design choice. Carefully layered tree branch patterns in a monochromatic color palette—white, gray, and black— also exhibit mirror effects (like the Rorschach test), suggesting Lewis’s “tree anxiety” and the history of violence that took place in country roads, woods, and fields.
The panels and flats are lit in different colors and textures, intensity by lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani. Mojgani juxtaposes a “real” and “surreal” worlds by blue lights for upstage (the bedroom area) and amber lights for downstage.
Costume designer Shelly Williams dresses Lewis first in shiny satin purple pajamas. As he recounts his story of the past, he adds a shirt and pants on top of them. Johnson’s basic costume is a shirt and pants with suspenders. He changes from Lewis’s brother to ancestors by simply adding a hat and removing a jacket.
The ancestral spirits in the play are evoked by music prepared by sound designer Emily Jankowski. Using music composed by Larry Gilliard, Jr., Jankowski’s ethereal soundscape invites the audience to a journey between 1995 and the mid-nineteenth century. Some melodies from the songs are repeated for other scenes to emphasize the threads that tie different times and spaces.
The title comes from a reference, in the play, to Simon’s mother (Lewis and Rex’s great-great grandmother) who paints her doorframe blue to protect her family from evil spirits. This “ritual” gives a significant meaning and courage to Lewis, who at the end of the play, enters a new phase of his life. Barfield’s play invites her readers and audiences to join Lewis’s “rite of passage” and an epiphanic “march” and MOXIE’s all-female production team truly illuminates the possibility of change and transformation.
Blue Door premiered at South Coast Repertory Theatre in April 2006. The New York City premiere was at Playwrights Horizons in October 2006. Regional theater productions include at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Arden Theatre Company (Philadelphia), Victory Gardens (Chicago), and Profile Theatre (Portland, Oregon).
Blue Door at MOXIE through March 5th, 2017. Photographs by Daren Scott.