YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Intimate ways of a family saga

In `Blue Door,' which uses but two actors, a black man in crisis is visited by the ghosts of ancestors.

April 23, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

IN the last weeks of honing "Blue Door" -- her first show for a major theater company after more than a decade of trying -- playwright Tanya Barfield decided she still needed some outside help. So she asked South Coast Repertory, where the play will open officially Friday, to try to find one person fluent in the West African Yoruba tongue and another conversant with higher mathematics.

She hoped the language expert could assure her that a song she made up using a one-way Yoruba-to-English dictionary would parse and truly mean what she wanted it to -- seeing as it's part of the play's opening and closing. As for the math, she felt she needed to grasp ideas more fully to nail down a metaphor in which the theories explored by her protagonist, a black professor of the philosophy of mathematics, would resonate with the play's time-bending structure.

"I like the world I create to be specific and credible and poetic," says Barfield, a pleasant, self-contained woman who appears not to have developed a stereotypical New York artiste's edgy persona even though the city has been her home since she left Portland, Ore., in the 1980s to become an acting major at New York University.

With "Blue Door," she had a multitude of details to master. For reasons she says still mystify her, she has written a historical play -- an intimate yet epic one that spans 150 years of African American experience while calling for just two actors. The play's family saga moves from slavery through a 1915 lynching and on to the modern era, in which a black man can be part of the professoriate and nevertheless feel cut off from his white colleagues as well as from his family and its past.

Lewis, the professor, spends the play as an initially unwilling host to a series of ghostly visitations from his dead brother, Rex, and from ancestors as far back as his great-great-grandmother. The book he has written and teaches to his students is called "Mathematical Structures and the Paradox of Time."

Barfield won't specify her age beyond 30-something, but she could pass for considerably younger with her smooth, freckled face framed by a mop of dreadlocks she has worn for 18 years. She wrote mainly about her contemporaries, white as well as black, until she was asked to submit a 10-minute play for a short-works festival at L.A.'s Echo Theater in 2003. "Wanting North," with two slave girls as the characters, "just popped out of my head," she says. After it was performed, she decided to do research to check up on her brief encounter with the historical past.

"I thought, 'I've gotta go back and figure out if I've been accurate in my creation of this world,' " she says. She began reading the first-person narratives of slaves. What jumped out and informed her writing of "Blue Door" were "textures, vocabulary, the way someone describes an emotion, how they put together words."


Horror in a family history

THE only prose she considered using verbatim was a newspaper report on an early 20th century abomination that she recast as having been committed against Lewis' grandfather and witnessed by his father.

"That was not in the least bit imagined," she says. "That was a common practice -- to lynch people, burn them, and cut them up and take pictures and sell those pictures as postcards. That is the one part of the play that I had to work to fictionalize. I found the facts so moving and frightening that I felt, 'I don't need to write this.' For the longest time, I had [Lewis and Rex read from] the newspaper clipping that described it."


Keeping room for humor

SHE ultimately decided to let the characters re-create that piece of their family history in their own words. She also knew that, given a play about a man on the verge of crumbling under a midlife crisis while reliving a persecuted past, she had to include as much comic relief as she could.

"When people hear about this play, they'll think, 'Why would I pay money to feel beat up?' " she says. "It was very important to me to put so much humor in the play because in the black community, there is so much humor, a great comedic tradition whether it is Richard Pryor or African American folk tales."

In a sense, "Blue Door" takes Barfield back to her beginnings in the theater: She was hooked when two actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival came to her high school and performed "Macbeth." "It was electrifying," she says, and inspired her to direct "Macbeth," although she had to organize the show herself because the school had neither a drama club nor any theater classes.

After college, she grew disgusted with the acting parts she was offered -- "all these drug addicts and prostitutes" -- and solved the problem by becoming a solo performance artist. She began writing for other actors in 1995 and won a place in the exclusive playwriting program at Juilliard taught by Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang.

Los Angeles Times Articles