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Friday, February 2, 2007 - Page updated at 04:55 AM

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Ghosts of past knock in "Blue Door"

Seattle Times theater critic

Tanya Barfield ticks off some of the many jobs she's had to support her playwriting habit. Working in hotels. At grocery stores. Waitressing.

But the Portland, Ore.-bred scribe's oddest odd job was one that, as she tells it, had her "spelunking through Oregon caves, monitoring the number of bats in them for the state."

Relax, bats. Barfield probably won't be spelunking for dollars again. Her plays have been produced in the U.S. and England. She won the 2003 Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights and was short-listed for other big prizes.

And a new, breakthrough work is helping Barfield devote full time to her writing: "Blue Door," an extended one-act about a middle-age, black math professor forced to confront his ethnic ancestry during one sleepless night.

The L.A. Times said of the play's 2006 debut at Southcoast Repertory, "Barfield poses sharp questions and counter-questions on contemporary black identity. Her vision is fearless and humane."

The play also ran Off Broadway last fall at Playwrights Horizons, which commissioned it. And a Seattle Repertory Theatre run is in previews.

By phone from New York, Barfield reflected on why "Blue Door" kicked open so many doors for her.

Theater preview

"Blue Door," in previews tonight through Tuesday, opens Wednesday and runs through March 4 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$40 (206-443-2222 or

Author Tanya Barfield gives a free public talk at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Rep.

Information: 206-443-2222.

"I think the subject matter and style it's written in speaks to a variety of people. Both African Americans and Caucasians seem to respond to the themes in the play — the issues of ancestry, reconciling oneself to the historical past, the guilt about success and issue of whether there's such a thing as passing down a legacy."

The sole child of a biracial marriage and a grad of the playwriting program at the Juilliard School, Barfield finds these themes complex and intriguing. But she likes exploring them through fictional characters quite different from herself. And she's been frustrated when it's assumed her work is autobiographical, especially the early solo plays she wrote and performed.

"I'm a private person and a rather reserved person," explained Barfield. "I just feel freer, and can write more truthfully when I'm writing from someone else's point of view."

In "Blue Door," her main figure is Lewis, a divorced, childless, middle-age black man who is a successful academic "striving to live in a world beyond race," as Barfield puts it.

"I thought a long time about what his profession would be and found that what Lewis is looking for is a kind of beauty in mathematical harmony. He talks about rising above the drudgery of existence, to get to the eternal verities."

But Lewis can't escape the insistent ghosts of his great-grandfather, his younger brother and others entwined in his life (all played by one actor in this two-man script).

The phantoms go all the way back to the slavery era. And to understand that era, Barfield says she undertook a lot of research — "into different time periods, into the way people talked about things, experienced things.

"I read many oral histories of slaves, and discovered there were a lot of details I hadn't learned from the literature, history and films about that period."

Barfield will discuss "Blue Door" in a public talk at the Rep Saturday. And she actually began writing it here, during the 2004 Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival at the Rep.

"I came to develop a different play," she noted, "but realized I didn't really want to work on it. Instead, I started working on 'Blue Door.' "

Christine Sumption, a Seattle-based dramaturge (and then a Rep staffer), urged Barfield to follow her creative instincts. "Chris was such a big champion of the play, and when I went to the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah later, she worked with me on it," Barfield recalled. "She was Ms. Cheerleader all along."

Another loyal fan of "Blue Door": actor Reg E. Cathey, a regular on the TV series "The Wire." "Reg was so committed he flew back and forth between Southern California and his TV shoots in Baltimore," said the writer, "just so he could do the Southcoast Rep run."

Cathey also played Lewis in New York. And he repeats the role at Seattle Rep, under the same New York director (Leigh Silverman) but with a different co-star, Hubert Point-Du Jour.

And Barfield's next drama?

No bats involved. She is gathering research for "a monster of a play" about another historical subject: an African American who worked in the White House during the Woodrow Wilson administration.

Misha Berson:

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