Not a ghost of a chance

Dobama offering lacks the right spirit

Blue Door Through Feb. 21 Dobama Theatre 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights 216.932.3396 Tickets: $10-$22

It takes the expansive mind of a Charles Dickens, August Wilson or even a Toni Morrison to pull off a ghostly saga of family redemption. Playwright Tanya Barfield seems to have the mind of a graduate student in her attempt at this genre. Her competent but limited Blue Door unfolds with the dogmatic purposefulness of a master's thesis in black studies.

The work, playing at Dobama Theatre, concentrates on a torturous evening during which a mathematics professor, Lewis, ponders the irony that his Caucasian wife has left him because he isn't black enough. Her departure was precipitated by his refusal to participate in the Million Man March.

In the course of the play's 90 minutes, Lewis is visited by the ghosts of his slave ancestors and his felon brother. Though filled with powerful vignettes, the script lacks distinctive emotional identity. Instead, it functions more like a prism, reflecting colors from many other plays, including Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and Wilson's brooding fantasias on the black man recovering from the wounds of slavery and trying assimilate himself into a new industrial century.

Barfield has constructed a crafty premise to begin her story — the contrast of a gentrified professor suffering the slights of cocktail-party condescension with the tortures of his ancestors and his drug-addicted brother.

Lewis has attempted to turn his back on his black roots and succeed in the white academic world. We have the template — which dates back to Dickens — of a sinner shown the errors of his ways by loquacious spirits.

In this case, the three specters are portrayed by one actor, Rod Lawrence, who has the body of a Rodin sculpture. With his burning sexuality and ability to embody joy and suffering in an instant, he's the personification of the black id so boldly suggested in The Emperor Jones.

Unfortunately, Geoff Short lives up to his surname as the professor. He calls to mind a slightly peeved teddy bear, lacking the internalized rage to play off his fellow actor's charisma. What should be a shattering conclusion — his realization that he has cut himself off from his past — barely registers on the theatrical Richter scale.

Director Scott Plate fails to supply the dramatic fertilizer to make this tentative script blossom into a full dramatic flower. The first 40 minutes make for a riveting and thought-provoking battle between the generations. But the conflicts are not sufficiently realized. The play is sunk by its own didactic verbiage.

The ultimate problem is that the playwright doesn't have the O'Neill-like power to distill something as massive as racial paranoia to its essence. The breadth of pain would require a mini series. But do we really need Roots Part III?  

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