by Suzi Steffen
photos courtesy Oregon Contemporary Theatre
Opening this weekend at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre is a play by a Portland playwright, with a Portland theatre set, Portland actors and a Portland directorial team.
And basically, its director says, all of Eugene should go see the play.
There are a thousand thousand tiny acts of heroism that you never read about, hear about, without which the greater gestures could never have been achieved. – Bobby Bermea
The play is Blue Door, by Tanya Barfield, a playwright who grew up in Portland and saw Portland’s Profile Theatre devote its entire 2016 season to her work. Barfield – who said in a 2016 interview that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Powell’s were both central to her love for theatre and development as a playwright – had never had a play produced in Oregon before Profile went all-in.
That’s a little weird because “Blue Door is an American journey,” says director and actor Bobby Bermea, who directed the play in Portland last April. “It’s fraught with pain and shame but also shows the grace, humor and dignity underneath that suffering.”
Oregon ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks said in his review that central character Lewis, who’s dealing with a divorce and trying to figure out where he fits into the U.S. as an African American man who’s a professor of math at a university, has a big job during the course of the play: “To find his place in his contemporary life, he must revisit the currents of his past, those ancestors and aspects of himself.”
Bermea is playing Lewis, who was played by Portland actor Vic
tor Mack last year. What’s it like for him to step into the role? Bermea laughs. “I’ve spent a lot of time apologizing in my head to Victor for the crazy things I had him do – like, sorry, I can’t believe I had you do this!”
Because “the directing brain is creative, but it’s a different thing from the acting brain,” Bermea says, he brought his creative partner Jamie Rea down with him to help out. Rea “has helped me play the character and gain some traction,” Bermea says.
Rea and Bermea started the Beirut Wedding World Theatre Project in Portland in 2016, a theatre company that the Oregonian says has a “mission [of] redefining local theater by bringing more diversity to Portland-area stages.”
The bringing of more diversity to a Eugene stage came about after Craig Willis, OCT’s artistic director, saw Blue Door in Portland last year. “You have to be forward-looking to bring this show in,” Bermea says, giving credit to Willis and the OCT team and board.
The decision was pretty fast. “Once the show closed, we brought the whole set down,” Bermea says. “Luckily for us, the space is similarly shaped.”
Bermea says that he found the run in Portland exciting: “The talkbacks, the way people responded, it was super heartening in a lot of ways. Blue Door is a very thoughtful play, and it brings out the thoughtful in people.”
The play features not only Lewis, but Lewis’ family and past. The actor playing many roles – roles that serve to interrogate Lewis, to educate Lewis, to surprise Lewis, to move Lewis – is Seth Rue, who played the same roles in the Portland production and who was nominated for a Drammy award for Best Actor for his work. Bob Hicks wrote, “Rue is [Lewis’] agile alter ego, his memory-bank, his rawer and more honest emotional self, the stirring in the blood that Lewis can’t extinguish. He is a ghost, and in a sense the realest part of Lewis: his foundation and his anchor.”
Bermea says those coming to see Blue Door should know that “it’s a play about fathers and sons. You don’t have to have an African American identity crisis to have had problems with your father, or complicated familial relationships with your brother.
That’s just one way in, Bermea says. “People [in Portland] openly responded to all of that,” he says. “The play has a surprising amount of avenues in for people from all over.”
He says it’s got some humor too. The play goes back through 400 years of history, true, but it’s not just about famous figures from history books. “The weight of great historical events is borne by the little people,” he says. “There are a thousand thousand tiny acts of heroism that you never read about, hear about, without which the greater gestures could never have been achieved.”
Blue Door is about a family that’s not going into history books, he says, but “Blue Door is about our common destiny.”
I ask if he’s tired of talking about the play yet. “It’s a play that has a year and a half worth of talking about it, you know?” he responds. “It was 400 years in the making, so I can probably talk about it for a while longer.”
And we can all talk about it together, during the run of the play:
Blue Door opens April 14 and runs through April 30
Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway, Eugene
7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday; 2 pm Sunday April 23 & 30
Tickets $20-$35; $15 for students with ID except opening night
Box office: 541-465-1506 or online.