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When A Cliche Becomes A Great Play

April 16, 2007

When I read the press materials about Berkeley Rep's production of Tanya Barfield's The Blue Door, I wasn't convinced that I would find the play very interesting. Dealing with a successful black mathematics professor's past -- generations of oppression including slavery and a gruesome lynching -- the work seemed to me to be covering all-too-familiar territory.

It's only very rarely that "race" plays rise above didactic cliche. August Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks are among the few contemporary playwrights in possession of the imagination and syntactic energy necessary to make the subject feel new and arresting rather than sanctimonious and heavy-handed. I'm pleased to be able to add Barfield to my list.

I'm really glad I made the effort to go across the Bay to see the show. With its mixture of numerous different voices from a plantation slave to ivy league academics at a cocktail party, and bold use of imagery and song, Barfield's tactile writing feels like we're listening to a piece of aural history than a written play. It's a remarkable achievement.

Delroy Lindo's rhythmic direction and the two actors' performances make the play sing. As Lewis the well-to-do-professor, David Fonteno gives a sensitive, smart performance. Here is a man who's lived his life determined to put the past behind him, but it rushes up and grabs him by the throat and won't let go. Teagle F. Bougere careens about the stage playing a variety of Lewis' ancestors including his great grandfather and his father. The two actors contrast each other powerfully: While Fonteno seems grounded and does a lot of sitting and thinking and talking to himself (most of the acting is in the way the actor holds his body and in his face), Bougere is much more physical and mercurial. He rushes about all over the place, switching from one character to the next within a second. He's possessed.

I felt very moved by the production throughout. The characters touched me as much as the issues in the play. I went home understanding just a little bit better why this country continues to be so mired in racial politics -- why it can't seem to rise above grappling with the most basic issues of equality. The Blue Door made me understand why something as apparently trifling as failing to turn up to the Million Man March in Washington DC might make one's wife ask for a divorce.

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