Tanya Barfield is a woman who has written "Blue Door" about two men. She's a teacher of literature whose protagonist is a mathematician. And she's a person who's in the dark about her own family's past but whose acclaimed play is about the importance of understanding your personal history.
"Write what you know"? Not here. With Barfield, it's "write what you imagine." Reviews around the country suggest her imagination is on the mark.
We can decide for ourselves this week, as Actor's Theatre of Charlotte gives "Blue Door" its local premiere with original music by Larry Gilliard Jr.
The two characters in it are Lewis and - the rest of his world. He's a mathematician who seeks precision in thought and perfect order in his life as a university professor. His wife has just left him, ostensibly because he refused to attend the Million Man March in Washington but actually because he has no self-awareness at all.
As he muses on her departure, the people on whom he's turned his back swim up out of his past and his subconscious mind. (They're all played by one actor.) Generations going back to slavery and forward to his own pugnacious brother challenge him to think about who they were and who he is.
"I know very little about my family," Barfield says. "People didn't remember, or it wasn't something of interest to them. So in many ways, this was my own search for the past, my craving for a historical identity. But by not knowing, I can have characters do whatever I want. The truth is often limiting."
The limited truth about Barfield, who's a private person, is that she's somewhere close to 40, grew up in Portland, has an 8-year-old son, teaches at Barnard College and is the literary manager of the playwrights' program at Juilliard School, where two celebrated mentors - Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang - still teach.
Escape from drudgery
You can't call her a failed actress, because she tired of that end of show business before it tired of her. She read for so many dull, superficial roles that she soon realized she'd need to write deeper ones for herself.
After graduating from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 1991, she began to write solo pieces. Had she gone on to Whoopi Goldberg-like financial success as an actress, her life's calling might never have emerged - but she didn't. So on a lark, she applied to Juilliard's graduate playwriting program and was admitted.
"I was fortunate in misfortune; because I'm a much better writer than I was an actor," she says. "I'm better at transforming myself (on paper). I could turn myself into an aging Jewish man onstage, but you would always see me through the lens of a young African-American woman turning herself into an aging Jewish man. As a writer, you disappear."
She completely disappears in Lewis, whose character thaws gradually across the 95 minutes of the one-act show.
"I've always been drawn toward higher math and have never had an aptitude for it," she says. "I checked with a mathematician about the play and asked, 'Is it all plausible?' He said it was very plausible - there is such a thing as the philosophy of mathematics - and the theorem Lewis is trying to prove turned out to be true.
"Lewis wants to rise above the drudgery of existence and apprehend the eternal verities. There's a pristine perfection to math, not life. For him, math is better than life. It's his ideal."
The ghosts onstage accuse Lewis of avoiding the feelings that also define him. They wonder whether a man who makes his living in a predominantly white academic community is too much of an assimilationist - a timely question when smart, diligent minority students can be mocked for trying to be too "white."
Though Barfield doesn't always write about black characters, she frequently uses racial identity as one of her topics.
"One of the disadvantages of getting to the place we're at now, with a black president, is that people say, 'Racism is dead. We don't have to worry about these things any more.'
"The wounds of race are deep and part of what makes us authentically American. Healing that is going to take a long time, if it ever happens. Things have definitely gotten better, but I don't think we're at the end of our journey yet."