If you ever wondered what an African-American version of A Christmas Carol would look like, you may have it in Blue Door by Tanya Barfield, now at Dobama Theatre. It’s an ambitious piece that features flights of lyricism, along with some joy and lots of pain, but the script has some stumbling blocks that impair the overall effect.
Ebenezer Scrooge in this play is a middle-aged black man named Lewis, and instead of being a nasty skinflint he’s a man who’s lost his identity. Having achieved middling success as a professor of the Philosophy of Mathematics, and having authored a book about time and math, Lewis’s credentials as a seriously heady nerd are fully established.
But he faces passive-aggressive racism at the university and strife at home: his white wife has just left him, supposedly because Lewis wouldn’t attend the Million Man March. Suffering from insomnia, Lewis complains, “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what I am.” And that’s the cue for (primarily) three ghosts to show up from the Lewis family tree, to guide him to a new understanding of his place in his clan, his race, and in the sweep of history.
These specters share the recollections of great-grandfather Simon, who was sexually molested by his slave owner’s son; grandfather Jesse who was lynched and burnt for his effrontery in trying to vote; and Lewis’s deceased brother Rex, who is more aggressive and angry about the plight of black men in society than Lewis ever dreamed of being.
These are all interesting (if somewhat familiar) tales, and they are delivered with electrifying charisma by Rod Lawrence, who shifts easily from one character to another. Possessing magnetic stage presence, young Mr. Lawrence owns the stage whenever he’s on it, and he also sings well when called upon to deliver a period tune.
Geoff Short, who plays poor lost Lewis, is faced with a less showy but more daunting acting task. And his problem is complicated since playwright Barfield seems too eager to get to the ghost stories. By skipping quickly over the divorce that evidently triggered Lewis’s insomnia, we never get a sense of why Lewis married a white woman, why she was so concerned about his black identity, what their relationship was like (apart from the breakup), and why he selected the career path he did.
Without that information, Lewis is forced to be more of a one-dimensional whiner than a deeply troubled, fully realized character. We do learn that Lewis had a distant and demanding father who sometimes tried to “beat the black” out of him, but even that back story is thin and borderline cliché.
As a result, the many profound lessons that can be drawn from the historical narratives, including the shattering disintegration of Simon’s family at the hands of the slave owner, lack the deep current context they need. That missing context would let us know how those lessons might affect Lewis and perhaps change his direction in life.
Nonetheless, director Scott Plate maneuvers his two actors well across the (very) spacious Dobama stage, and helps them define the small beats that make even some of these well-known moments from black history throb with passion, sorrow and a certain kind of hope.
As for Lewis, we are left with a question mark because, sadly, we hardly got to know him.
Through February 21 at Dobama Theatre,
2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights,