In a career encompassing film, television and theater roles, Carl Lumbly has played cops, CIA agents and superheroes. But the actor says his latest role, in “Blue/Orange,” may be his most challenging to date.
Directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe for the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Joe Penhall’s play about race, madness and identity takes place in a London psychiatric ward. It features Lumbly as Christopher, a man who may or may not be the illegitimate son of an African dictator.
When Hansberry artistic director Steven Anthony Jones offered him the role, Lumbly says he was immediately drawn to it.
“It just took me,” Lumbly explained on a recent rehearsal break. “Penhall did the screenplay for Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road.’ There’s a strong ‘you are there’ quality to his writing.”
“Blue/Orange” begins when Christopher is brought to the hospital for evaluation and shocks the doctors (played by Julian Lopez-Morillas and Dan Clegg) with his improbable familial claims.
Subsequent scenes ask the audience to decide the line between truth and fantasy, but Lumbly says Christopher remains a fascinating character throughout.
“Whether or not it’s the case, the fact that he believes he’s an illegitimate son is compelling,” Lumbly says. “There’s a bravery in him and a willingness to stand up. Even if he’s mad, he’s quite intelligent.”
Lumbly, who lives in Berkeley, thinks the 2000 play is still timely — particularly in the Bay Area, with its large homeless population.
“It’s very much about the world in which we live,” he says. “I walk past cats like Christopher every day, and it’s never quite what you think.”
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Lumbly was raised in Minnesota and came to San Francisco to pursue a career in journalism. In 1976, though, he answered a call for black actors and found himself making his San Francisco debut opposite Danny Glover in a production of Athol Fugard’s “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.”
From there he went on to film and TV, including long-running parts on “Cagney & Lacey” and “Alias.” But he remains committed to Bay Area theater; recent shows include McCarthy’s “Sunset Limited” at the San Francisco Playhouse.
Still, Lumbly says working at Hansberry is extraordinary.
“It’s exciting to be part of this tradition of a theater that wants to reach out to everyone,” he says. “That’s why it’s great to do this play here. Penhall allows everyone to have a voice. It’s a three-way dialogue, and all of them hold the truth.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
Where: 450 Post St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 18
Tickets: $43 to $53
Contact: (415) 474-8800, www.lhtsf.org