Theater Review: African Continuum's 'Blue Door' at Atlas Performing Arts Center

In "Blue Door," James Foster Jr. (foreground) plays Lewis, a mathematician visited by the spirits of various relatives, played by Derrick LeMont Sanders.
In "Blue Door," James Foster Jr. (foreground) plays Lewis, a mathematician visited by the spirits of various relatives, played by Derrick LeMont Sanders. (By John Woo)
By Celia Wren
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, April 23, 2009

The mathematical equations that spider across the set of "Blue Door" are more pertinent than they're meant to be. On an obvious level, they correlate with the themes of Tanya Barfield's play, which explores the existential crisis of an African American mathematician named Lewis. Unfortunately, those straggling digits and symbols also highlight the prime flaw:

Ambitious but tidy, this drama's algebra of ideas and historical references feels too calculated.

Not that this production -- making its Washington premiere courtesy of African Continuum Theatre Company -- lacks rousing moments: They arrive, thanks to actor Derrick LeMont Sanders, who plays various ancestors and other relatives of Lewis (portrayed by James Foster Jr.). And it's fluidly staged by the eminent director Walter Dallas, who is also making his D.C. debut in this production at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

In the show's opening moments, Sanders appears in a pool of yellow light, between an equation-scrawled wall and a pillow-heaped bed. (Timothy Jones designed the eloquently simple set.) Shamanlike, the performer executes a slow, hypnotic dance, singing in Yoruba (he's channeling one of Lewis's forefathers). It's just the first taste of the actor's physical audacity and infectious stage presence, which nearly compensate for the overexplicitness of Barfield's script.

In a conceit that is presumably not intended to make us think of "A Christmas Carol," Barfield shoehorns her story into a haunted night. After Lewis's white wife leaves him when he refuses to attend the Million Man March (that 1995 event is evidently the last straw in the marital haystack), the scholar struggles with insomnia. Before you can say "Mathematical Structures and the Repudiation of Time" -- the title of Lewis's book -- deceased kinfolk materialize to tell their stories and reconnect him with his roots. Time, it seems, isn't so easy to repudiate after all.

"You got a buncha white people sittin up in your head being your audience. You livin under a White Gaze," Lewis's drug-addict brother Rex informs him, in one of many lines that echo W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of double consciousness. (Du Bois's quote "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others . . . " provides the script's epigraph.) Swaggering as the beret-sporting Rex; miming cattle-driving as Simon, born under slavery; evolving from childish innocence to frustrated adulthood as Jesse, brutally murdered by a white mob -- Sanders unveils personalities who are witty, intriguing and distinct.

Foster has a tougher assignment: locating theatricality in a hesitant, introverted math wonk. For the most part, the actor doesn't succeed: Wan and strangely apathetic as he shuffles, or sits poker-backed, in his blue bathrobe, this Lewis is far less interesting as a person than as a sociological situation.

The actor's performance does flare with brief intensity during the play's climax, shortly before the director delivers a resonant final tableau. Still, when curtain call arrives, one feels less that one has shared an anguished human story than that one has observed a dramaturgical algorithm.

Blue Door, by Tanya Barfield. Lyrics by Barfield, music by Larry Gilliard Jr. Directed by Walter Dallas; lighting design, Curtis V. Hodge; music consultant, James Foster Jr.; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba. 90 minutes. Through May 3 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit

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