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Tanya Barfield's script for Blue Door is beyond ambitious, taking on themes of race and identity in concert with issues of ancestry and origin. As presented, it's enough material for two entirely separate plays, yet Barfield comes out with a highly distilled ninety-minute powerhouse. Cemented by intense performances and Suzi Regan's thoughtful direction, the Williamston Theatre's production is a luminous mingling of personal identity with personal history, and the case of a man who desperately wants to cut one off from the other.

Lewis (Rico Bruce Wade) is an accomplished academic and professor who wants to stop being seen as a black man and be just a man. At the play's outset, his refusal to attend the Million-Man March has turned out to be the last straw that ends his marriage. This in turn plunges him into one bleak and sleepless night, his head swirling with liquor and thoughts — the latter taking physical form in actor Julian Gant, who appears as Lewis's brother, Rex, as well as their grandfather, Jesse, and great-grandfather, Simon. Gant's varied characters inform the past Lewis doesn't care to acknowledge: his ancestors' upbringings as slaves, their emancipation and subsequent struggle to exercise their freedoms, and the continuing (even increasing) danger of being black in the murderous deep South. Lewis, meanwhile, is disgusted that the reviews of his book all qualified him as a black mathematician, as though his work has been assigned some kind of handicap; however, what Lewis sees as his desire for parity, Rex labels as assimilation. The brothers' different approaches to honoring their forefathers' struggle for equality is a fascinating exploration of how, and whether, race should play a part in one's self-perception.

Many of the first scenes are told strictly by monologue, in which Gant's passion is dissonant against Wade's defeated understatement, and neither takes particular care to distinguish voices when they singlehandedly recreate conversations. The breach between Lewis and his history is underscored by his inability to interact with Jesse and Simon in contrast with his dynamic exchanges with headstrong Rex, a proud black man who served jail time and died of a drug overdose, and who Lewis consequently disdains as an unfortunate stereotype. The focus shifts to increasing interactions between the unwelcome Gant and the unwilling Wade, who are phenomenal together, building a head of steam that explodes with the shocking emergence of the heretofore missing link in their genealogical chain. Regan and her actors clearly acknowledge the arbitrary rules within the world of the play, and the attention to structure is reflected in every bit of the staging.

This invented setting of "inside Lewis's head" presents a challenge for set designer Bartley H. Bauer. His multilevel terrain conflating books and earth is Gant's happy playground, and his take on the titular door is gorgeous under Donald Robert Fox's shifting lights, but the choice to establish Lewis's physical domain as an oversized book reminiscent of a children's show didn't particularly move me. Holly Iler's neutral costumes let Gant do the heavy lifting of shifting characters, which he executes well. As of opening night, it felt like the actors' memorization was just falling into place, a minor (and likely fleeting) foible that did not detract from the flow and power of the narrative.

Should our identities and decisions be informed by the experiences of the people who made and shaped us, or do we owe it to ourselves to live our own lives? Blue Door doesn't offer an answer. It is instead a haunting look into the journey of one man — or is it four or five? — and the anchor that is the constant past.


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