“Can we define the present moment independent of the past?” Lewis, a super-achieving African-American professor, asks his students in a math lecture. That question is the central theme of Tanya Barfield’s two-hander, “Blue Door,” now receiving a stellar production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Unfortunately, the answer is perfectly evident to the audience, if not to the play’s central character, thus making “Blue Door” heavy-handed and repetitive. Nevertheless, with its snatches of original song and its carefully scripted storytelling, it’s entertaining and deeply affecting.
During a long, dark night of the soul, Lewis learns a lesson — one he’s been trying to hide from himself his whole life — from visits by deceased relatives: In order to be his true self, he must face not only his troubled ancestry but also his own personal demons. Lewis’ 21st-century-middle-class-black-man’s dilemma is less involving than his visitors’ tales of coming up from slavery, which are heartbreaking.
At the start, Lewis informs us that his white wife has dumped him, ostensibly because he won’t go on the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. She says he has a “resistance to looking at myself,” he reports ruefully.
As he dozes off in his armchair, his first vision appears: his great-grandfather Simon, dead 103 years. Soon enough, Simon morphs into Rex, Lewis’ brother, the one who went bad; then into Simon’s brave and rebellious son, Jesse.
Stories are interspersed as the visitors try to help sad, lonely Lewis reconnect to his real identity as the descendent of slaves.
Lewis knows he can’t not be black — but at the same time, he’s carved a life for himself that denies his roots. “You’re afraid to be black,” brother Rex accuses him. “You have an illiterate victim mentality,” Lewis counters.
The talent is abundant — in actor (and local resident) Delroy Lindo’s smooth and sure-handed direction and in the fluid, deeply felt turns by David Fonteno as Lewis and by Teagle F. Bougere, who creates sharp portraits of Simon, Rex and Jesse.
Blue Door ***
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Thursdays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, closes May 20
Tickets: $45 to $61
Contact: (888) 427-8849 or www.berkeleyrep.org