Back in the days of JazzCharlotte, I asked the great folksinger Odetta a few weeks before she arrived in town whether she was going to perform any of the work songs, such as "Water Boy" or "No More Cane on the Brazos," that her reputation was built upon. The answer was an emphatic no: She no longer sang the music created by second-class citizens and civil rights marchers. It was a tender topic for a woman who wasn't known for her tenderness.
Tanya Barfield, the African-American playwright whose Blue Door is currently being presented at Actor's Theatre in its Charlotte premiere, would likely oppose Odetta's stand. Her protagonist, Lewis, a professor whose stature in the academic world rests on his advocacy of the philosophy of mathematics, has spent the better part of a lifetime ignoring his black heritage. Finally, Lewis's pragmatic strategy has caught up with him. A blow-up in his lecture hall resulted in his university dean putting him on an involuntary sabbatical. On top of that, his refusal to act on his white wife Kimberly's suggestion that he participate in the Million Man March on Washington has led to their separation.
Lewis is clearly a more virulent case than Odetta, who edited her repertoire late in her career to emphasize the dignity of her people while Lewis has sought to erase his race. Scrooge-like, Lewis lounges in his study on a sleepless night on the anniversary of his father's death and is visited by three family ghosts — who review their own lives while helping Lewis to face up to his own.
Since Lewis talks to us as much as he talks to his visitors, there are times when Lewis in his loungewear resembles a host of Masterpiece Theatre as much as an Afro-Scrooge. Under the direction of Chip Decker, Brian Daye delivers what is easily the most nuanced performance I've seen from him as Lewis, irritating us with his abstracted urbanity as much as with his pig-headedness. The two qualities seem to have become one before his visitors — and his memories — break him down.
Daye turns himself into some of the people Lewis remembers as his story unfolds, but the true chameleon onstage at Actor's Theatre these days is Jeremy DeCarlos. His most salient portraits begin with Simon, who is born into slavery and emancipated shortly after he is married. DeCarlos then morphs into Simon's tragicomic son, Jesse, whose sentencing to 13 years on a chain gang strikes us as the absurd punchline of a hideous joke — but since Simon outlives his son by 42 years, DeCarlos treats us to considerable shuttling back and forth. The last of the spirits is Lewis's younger brother, Rex, who perhaps identifies with his heritage to a fault, having died eight years before the Million Man March of a drug overdose.
If you saw DeCarlos in the multiple roles he brought to Southern Rapture in 2009 — including thinly veiled representations of Tony Kushner and Rev. Joe Chambers — his shape-shifting will not surprise you. Yet this outing is closer in flavor to his puckish, shamanistic role in Natural Selection back in 2007, particularly when we enter into the totemic meaning of the blue doors that punctuate the narrative of Rex and his ancestry. Daye has fewer transformations to negotiate, but they are all the more powerful when they happen: as he mimes a chalkboard in the lecture hall where he is heckled by a student, and when he becomes his own father reacting to his brilliant son's report card.
That's a pivotal moment for us as much as Lewis, for we suddenly grasp how it has colored his life.