Behind the Blue Door 

Strong performances anchor the Berkeley Rep's new play about slavery's legacy.

Much of the draw of the local premiere of Blue Door, the new play by Tanya Barfield, is that it's directed by Oakland-based actor Delroy Lindo (Crooklyn, The Cider House Rules). It's not quite Lindo's directorial debut — he's directed a play once before, in Los Angeles in 2005 — but certainly his local one, and it's interesting to see what such an accomplished actor does with an actor-driven piece like this, with a cast of two playing several roles. The good news is that Barfield's play is gripping enough in its own right that you forget all about the man behind the curtain.

Lewis (David Fonteno), a fiftysomething African-American Ivy League math professor newly abandoned by his white wife, goes through a sleepless night in which he's visited by the spirits of several generations of the men in his family: his slave-born great-grandfather Simon, his grandfather Jesse who grew up under Jim Crow, and his militant brother Rex, all played by Teagle F. Bougere. (It's a good thing that neither of the elder night visitors was replaced by the child Lewis would never have, or else the parallels to A Christmas Carol would be too strong to ignore.) The missing generation — Lewis' estranged father — is later embodied commandingly by Lewis himself as he recounts particularly painful episodes in his childhood.

Because the yarns spun along the way are about generations of an African-American family beginning in the antebellum South, it should be no surprise that some of the stories are horrific, but they're a lot more than that: touching, engaging, often funny. A story Jesse tells about visiting a whites-only church has the feel of a trickster myth at first, and even after things go badly there's a familiar punch line to take some of the edge off.

The title refers to a sort of protection spell that recurs in the play through the generations of violence and oppression — that of painting a door blue to "keep the night terrors out, keep your soul family in." That ritual is given a semiliteral expression in Kathy A. Perkins' lighting design by a rectangular patch of blue light.

There's little in the way of magical smoke and mirrors in Lindo's production, which is definitely for the best. The less-naturalistic elements feel ill-fitting, such as Emilio Sosa's curiously fantastical set with a starry background and an impossibly high bookshelf equipped with false books that light up once at the beginning of the show, accompanied by a sharp thump. A long ramp ascending at the rear of the stage doubles as a sort of road to the afterlife, but the other generically dreamlike visual elements would be equally at home in Peter Pan.

The focus is quite properly on the performances, and on that level the show is mostly a success. A natural raconteur, Fonteno's Lewis wrings unexpected humor from his dark night of the soul, establishing a rapport right off the bat with a wry monologue about his wife leaving him because he wouldn't go to the Million Man March. Fonteno looks back and forth between Bougere and the audience the way people do when they're telling a story at a party, and although Lewis is at home and we're not really there, the effect feels natural enough that the usual who's-he-talking-to conundrum of theatrical soliloquies is easily dismissed. "You got a bunch of white people sitting up in your head being your audience," Rex says, gesturing toward the crowd, and that's explanation enough.

Rex' dialogue with Lewis becomes a kind of treatise on racial self-loathing. Over the course of the night Lewis, an uncomfortably assimilated black man in the predominantly white world of academe, has to come to terms with his forefathers and all they went through to bring him where he is today.

Bougere makes that process particularly pleasurable with his characterization of bright and fast-talking Simon, both as a young man and as an inquisitive child asking the questions about life under slavery, for which there are no good answers. Just his mother's "no backtalk" look that Simon re-creates speaks volumes. Bougere's Jesse is substantially similar, but sly and charming enough that it scarcely matters. Even the confrontational Rex is sometimes a riot, parodying an upper-crust white person by holding his beret as if it were a saucer at a tea party.

The interaction between the two has some problematic aspects. Before Lewis is aware of Simon's presence, he simply goes slack as his ancestor spins a yarn about going courting, then livens up and resumes his own story about himself and his white wife as if nothing had happened.

When Lewis starts to actually see dead people, his reaction to them is equally disconnected. "Think about math," he mutters to try to ward off these visitations, but his invocations of mathematical concepts interrupt Simon's story and come off like the incoherent sputterings of a crazy person, and the timing feels too much as if he's waiting for his turn to speak. It's hard to make those kinds of interjections work, and they don't quite work here. But whenever either Lewis or his various relations launch into an anecdote, usually one that starts off humorous and inevitably becomes painful, it's impossible not to be transfixed.

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