February 5, 2010

Searching for black identity beyond the Blue Door

The Pulitzer-Prize nominated play Blue Door tells the story of Louis, a middle-aged professor of mathematics, struggling with his black identity. The play effectively provokes intense thoughts and feelings in the audience without being overburdened by either. Although it is extremely emotional, the audience is never forced into a particular response. Likewise, the play considers several large questions without seeming overly pretentious.

Louis suffers from insomnia during the one night in which the action is set, causing his deceased family members to visit him. As it turns out, this is the same night his wife leaves him because of his refusal to acknowledge and accept his cultural background. His wife’s list of grievances include his refusal to participate in the Million Man March and his almost total assimilation into white culture.

This sleepless night takes us on a journey through Louis’s ideological transformation. The patterned structure of the visiting family members gives the play a fast pace; the plot often switches between Louis’s memories, his ancestors’ stories, and his own thoughts, and these events form a direct line of cause and effect all the way to Louis, four generations separated from slavery. Lindsay Smiling adeptly plays all of Louis’s family members: Simon, Jesse, and Rex (his great-grandfather, grandfather, and brother, respectively). In this way, the audience can easily grasp the visual differences and effects of each generation upon the next.

Simon and Jesse dominate the stage when present; they have complete control over the audience. Louis only fully interacts with Rex, thus shedding light on the juxtaposition between contemporary assimilated and non-assimilated black Americans. Throughout the conversations between Louis and Rex, Louis often talks about his desire to educate himself and become successful, describing his time at college and his success as a tenured university professor. On the other hand, Rex has spent time in jail and dies of a drug overdose.

The absence of Louis’s father in the play eventually becomes noticeable. All the other male members of the family have been accounted for, their stories added to the collection of rich history Louis draws upon for his eventual acceptance of his identity. As Louis describes recent encounters with his father, Charles, and as we learn about Charles’s own relationship with his father, we begin to understand why Louis has forsaken his roots. With the help of Rex, Louis realizes that his father was affected by events that happened during his own childhood, just as Louis was affected by events wrought by his father during his own childhood. Realizing this, Louis comes to forgive his father and is able to create a new identity for himself. It is this acceptance which allows him to complete his transformation, effectively drawing the action to a close.

The play perfectly balances thought-provoking questions with emotion, giving concessions to neither. Several large questions are brought up, including the assimilation of black Americans, how black Americans are compelled to view their identity, and how one generation can impact another, regardless of whether the influence is positive or negative. Rather than attempting to solve these complex problems, the Blue Door wishes to call attention to them, almost as a call to arms.