Education as Alienation | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Education as Alienation

A black mathematician confronts his family history in Blue Door at Victory Gardens.

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"Education is the passport to the future," Malcolm X said, "for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today." In Tanya Barfield's thought-provoking Blue Door, education is the path by which four generations of African-American fathers and sons rise above social marginalization—but it's also a trap for the last living member of that clan, whose success has cut him off from his roots.

Barfield was a solo performer before she became a playwright, and her background is evident in this intermissionless 90-minute two-hander. Tracing the experiences of its characters across 144 years, Blue Door is essentially a suite of interlocking monologues—the emphasis is on storytelling, not physical action. Yet Barfield's taut, colorful writing, at once polished and colloquial, keeps the play from becoming dramatically static. And in its local premiere at Victory Gardens, directed by Andrea Dymond, it's a compelling showpiece for two superb actors, Lindsay Smiling and Chicago theater veteran Bruce Young.

Set in 1995 but flashing back and forth over the decades, the play focuses on Lewis (Young), a middle-aged, childless university professor. After 25 years of marriage, his wife, who's white, has divorced him because, he says, she felt that "if a person compartmentalizes their life like I do, they deny the dimensionality of themselves and you never feel like you're getting the whole person." Sitting alone with his books in his dimly lit study, Lewis receives a Dickensian visit from his dead brother, Rex, a onetime black militant who spiraled downward into crime, crack addiction, and homelessness before ODing.

As the siblings talk, an aura of the 1960s lingers around them. These were the years when Rex embraced black separatism while Lewis went to college, the first step toward becoming part of an academic establishment that was just beginning to open its doors to "Afro-Americans." Calling his brother "Lewy-Sambo," Rex derides Lewis's pursuit of education as a way "to learn how to assimilate with the Man." Lewis counters, "I'm not ashamed to say that I've learned things that white people know all about—even things they know nothing about."

As the two spar, Rex transforms into their ancestors—great-grandfather Simon, grandfather Jesse, and father Charles—and each in turn tells his own story. Simon, a slave who saw his father shot and the rest of his family sold at auction, recalls that despite rules prohibiting the education of blacks, he was taught "book learning" by his master's teenage son, Jonathan, a repressed homosexual and closet abolitionist. Jonathan molested him, Simon reports, but also encouraged him to believe he'd ultimately be free. After emancipation, Simon's education stands him in good stead, but horrific oppression remains. His son Jesse was lynched, we learn, for trying to vote—an atrocity witnessed by Jesse's son Charles, who grew up to become an abusive alcoholic. When Charles died, Lewis refused to go to his funeral.

Lewis's longstanding alienation from his father has walled him off from his familial and cultural history. He's retreated into a world of mathematical abstractions, and only by embarking on a different sort of education can he reclaim his soul.

At its worst, Barfield's text is contrived and schematic, presenting Lewis as a African-American everyman cut off from a history represented by archetypal ancestors and iconic events. But Barfield's use of image, rhythm, and song makes the tales vivid. And Lewis's inability to come to terms with his dead parent is a common dilemma. Blue Door speaks universally about the human condition as well as specifically about black history.

In a moment of metatheatrical irony, Rex suggests that Lewis's life is a show for "a buncha white people sittin' up in your head" and nods toward the audience. Indeed, Blue Door is very much a play about performance. While Lewis is always Lewis, even when he impersonates his own parents and his wife, Rex morphs completely into Simon and Jesse—who in turn portray other characters, including Jonathan and Simon's mother, who orders Simon to paint the door of their cabin blue to "keep the ghost out and keep your soul-family in." As Rex, Jesse, Simon, and the multitude around them, Smiling shifts roles with quicksilver speed, yet his characterizations are never facile or superficial. As Lewis, Young is physically stolid yet emotionally fluid, taking each step of Lewis's psychological journey. Their compelling performances are enhanced by the ingenious visual design by Keith Pitts (set), Charlie Cooper (lights), and Liviu Pasare (video), which transforms the space around Lewis's study into a forest, a brownstone-lined New York street, a starry sky, and the house with the blue-streaked door that gives this moving play its title.

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