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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Blue Door
Aurora Theatre Company

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of A Strange Loop and Forever Plaid

Michael J. Asberry
Photo by Alessandro Mello
Lewis is in a bit of a pickle. When his wife suggests he ought to travel to Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March (a gathering of African-American men organized by Louis Farrakhan to present a significantly different image of Black men than that maintained by America's predominantly white culture) and he demurs, she springs the "D" word on him: divorce. Because, she says, "You know, Lewis–you're Black." Coming from a white woman (whom we never see), this seems a bit odd. But Lewis (played with tremendous humor and energy by Michael J. Asberry) knows exactly how Black he is. When his wife had previously suggested a "vacation in the country," Lewis wasn't interested, due in large part to the fact that he's worried he wouldn't be able to blend in in the country the way he can in the city.

In Tanya Barfield's Blue Door, which opened this week in an Aurora Theatre Company production (with skillful direction by Darryl V. Jones), Lewis represents the sort of Black man that is often in danger of being labeled an "Uncle Tom." He is a successful professor of mathematics, married to a white woman, author of a book on mathematics and philosophy. In one of his classes, a student (specifically a student athlete) calls him a "house ni**er." When he returns the N-word epithet, the dean forces him into a sabbatical.

This action all comes spilling out in one sleepless night when Lewis is visited–rather like Scrooge–by the ghosts of several of his ancestors: slaves; newly freed slaves; Black men who overcame servitude to learn to read and write; and even his brother Rex, who failed in all the ways Lewis succeeded. All these characters are played with a ferocious intensity by James Mercer II, who is tremendously adept at embodying each character with their own speech patterns and mannerisms, from stereotypical southern Black dialects of the slave era to more contemporary rhythms and accents.

The ghosts regale Lewis with a horror-filled retelling of the indignities and cruelties heaped upon his progenitors: imprisonment for daring to step inside a white church (after listening through the window as the preacher spoke of how "all are welcome" in God's house), beatings, lynchings, burnings, the separation of mother from child in slave sales, a grandfather murdered for daring to cast a vote. And there is a visit from the KKK, who are mistaken as ghosts by a ten-year old ancestor, given their white robes and hoods. It's a brutal but vital history, even if it leaves Lewis with no more vision into his self-identity than he had when he first climbed into bed earlier that evening. "I don't know where–who–I don't know why I am," he says near the conclusion of Blue Door. "All these years, I don't know why I am."

In the Gullah culture of South Carolina, a door was painted blue to keep the bad spirits out of the house. Blue represented the sky, which ghosts would supposedly fly right through, or water, which they were believed not to be able to cross. Barfield ties this tradition (which also has resonance to the indigo plant, the source of the blue dye, which made use of slave labor to grow, tend and harvest) to our modern fascination with Feng Shui, the Chinese tradition of design and architecture intended to created harmony and balance within a home–something Lewis's wife evidently embraced.

Although Lewis never fully extricates himself from the pickle he is in, the night of horrors turns out to be enough to more fully connect him to his culture, as the show closes with Lewis and one of his ancestors singing an ancient Yoruba lullaby thanking the ancestors.

Blue Door runs through May 19, 2024, at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $20-$65. For tickets and information, please visit or call 510-843-4822.