The problem with the past, as Ibsen and his crowd are always reminding us, is that it rarely stays there. It keeps sneaking into the present (typically at the most inopportune times) and fouling up the prospect of a blissfully amnesiac future.
One could go so far as to say that the story of modern drama is the story of ghosts, not of the supernatural kind. Certainly Lewis, the haunted African American protagonist of Tanya Barfield’s intelligent if overly explanatory drama “Blue Door,” could be described as a man cornered by the specters of his own memory.
The play, which had its world premiere opening Friday at South Coast Repertory, is a study in the impossibility of outrunning hidden shame. What distinguishes it from the countless other psychodramas harping on similar themes is that the trauma slowly surfacing in “Blue Door” involves more than the usual family strife.
Child abuse, alcoholism and depression are undeniably part of the picture. But at the bottom of Barfield’s character study is the nightmare of slavery and its warping legacy of racism in America. This doesn’t necessarily make it a better play. But it makes it a more ambitious one.
The production, a two-hander directed by Leah C. Gardiner and starring Reg E. Cathey and Larry Gilliard Jr., frequently has the characters pitch their monologues straight to the audience. Lewis, a mathematics professor who has spent his adult life pulling himself up magnificently by the bootstraps, confides to us that his wife is divorcing him because he won’t participate in the Million Man March.
At first, this seems ridiculously unfair. By the end of the story, however, it will be all too understandable.
A PhD with a fancy academic job, Lewis aspires to live with his white wife in a colorblind world that judges him on his accomplishments alone. Unfortunately, no matter how much he achieves, someone’s always mentioning his Harlem roots or referring to him not simply as a professor but as “an African-hyphenated-American professor.” During a tea party at his dean’s private residence, he becomes the comic focus of highly theoretical (and rather tactless) multicultural questions that he, a numbers man, doesn’t begin to know how to answer.
Lewis’ success has come largely through his ability to block out the disadvantages and injustices that have beset him his whole life. For him, forgetting isn’t just a principle, it’s an ethic. As he sees it, self-pity is a form of bondage and oppression merely “an excuse for failure.”
But this practice of rigorous denial has taken its toll on his career and marriage. Not only has his wife walked out on him, but we learn that he’s also been placed on a mandatory sabbatical for exploding at a black student he wrongly believes used a racial slur against him.
Suffering from insomnia and despondent at these unfortunate turns in his life, he is visited by the spirits of his ancestors urging him to embrace the history he’s rejected. Gilliard plays the departed family members, briskly transforming from one to another in an openly theatrical performance that doesn’t try to resolve whether the apparitions are mere figments of Lewis’ imagination. Occasionally his characters even toss in a few humorous remarks about standing before South Coast’s mostly white audience.
First and foremost among the walking dead is Lewis’ great-grandfather Simon, a proudly literate man who was born into slavery but lived long enough to struggle his way to freedom. His harrowing tale, one that includes forced separation from his aged mother and pregnant wife, deserves more than simple remembrance. Showered with indignities, he himself is a monument of dignified survival and the source of the fine intellect Lewis inherited.
Rex’s entrance is more tumultuous. Lewis’ deceased, drug-addicted brother represents everything he has desperately tried to avoid. He’s less of a sibling to him than the “epitome of black failure.” “I didn’t want to go to jail,” Lewis yells at him. “I went to college.”
But Rex has an uncanny ability to see through Lewis’ hypocrisy and self-hate, calling him “an American dreamer” and a “slave” who thinks he’s king of his own kingdom.
The horrific saga of Lewis’ grandfather, who was hanged, burned and dismembered for trying to vote, is also recounted. This narrative goes a long way toward explaining the alcoholic violence of Lewis’ father, who had to regularly pass by a store where postcards were sold of his dad’s lynching.
Barfield poses sharp questions and counter-questions on contemporary black identity. Her vision is fearless and humane, though her method is somewhat too explicitly articulated. “Blue Door” often seems like an essay for two actors in which all the important themes are spelled out to a fault.
It’s as though she doesn’t yet trust her characters to embody all the ideas she wants to touch on, which is a sign that Lewis and his brethren need some fleshing out. The form of the play allows her to traverse a lot of territory, but it makes it difficult for her -- and her seasoned, sensitive actors -- to get in deep.
Barfield is unfailingly thought-provoking. But for the past to really speak to us as she intends, it must present itself with the eloquence of a vivid dream, not the straightforward language of interpretation.
Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: May 14
Price: $28 to $58
Contact: (714) 708-5555