Undoing the Math

African American history adds up in Tanya Barfield's play

More miniature historical pageant than play, Tanya Barfield's Blue Door uses a crisis in the life of a black mathematics professor as a thin string on which to hang a series of now familiar scenes from African American history, as the uptight, edge-of-breakdown professor (Reg E. Cathey) is visited by the ghosts of his ancestors from slavery time and Reconstruction, along with his traumatic memories of his tough-loving, embittered father and his streetwise, dead-too-young brother. We've traveled this iconic road before, but the 90-minute ride down it never gets too painfully predictable: The old scenic views get a renewed liveliness from Barfield's sly, off-angle way of approaching a subject and her teasing flair for words. (A symptom of the professor's impending breakdown: When a student says "Heidegger," he mishears it as "house nigger.")


The Blue Door
by Tanya Barfield
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Leigh Silverman's staging keeps this extended backstory spinning out with easy grace. Cathey, a dry but forceful actor, pumps up effective emotional storms for the big finish. Blue Door's strongest asset, however, is Andre Holland, a fresh-faced, versatile young actor with an impish comic sense, who, as the resident ancestral representative in the hero's mind, seizes with smiling assurance every showy chance that Barfield lays out for him as he glides from one role and one era to the next. Role on, Holland!