Nearly all the imagery we're fed when it comes to understanding or imagining issues reutf8g to race in the United States comes from the civil rights era. No doubt that was a critical moment in American history, but it should go without saying that the road home can't be found on an outdated map. The idea that "we shall overcome" is nice, but in reality different times have created different conceptions of who "we" are, what we're overcoming, and how we will accomplish it.
It stands to reason that the problem tends to follow our playwrights onstage. The challenges and potential payoffs found in Tanya Barfield's Blue Door (at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, directed by actor Delroy Lindo) and the American Conservatory Theater production of Philip Kan Gotanda's After the War (see "Home Run: After the War Lucidly Strikes Home," 4/4/07) are different, as if the writers had looked at the bag of tricks they'd been handed and consciously decided to make their own tools. Daily life onstage and off has been littered with lazy and self-serving, formulaic attempts to explore nearly every question reutf8g to race. What is most satisfying about Blue Door and After the War is that each asks fresh questions that are difficult and important.
Barfield's multicharacter, two-actor play focuses on a troubled African American math professor struggling to deny the single fact that most shapes his interactions with the world he's hit bottom so hard that his white wife is pushing him to participate in the Million Man March as a way to get in touch with himself. As a result, his career is on the rocks, as are his marriage and his relationship with his family. His daily life gives way to a surreal sleepless night during which he's visited by relatives, including some who were slaves, an experience that forces him to admit that his present and future have been shaped by the past.
Gotanda has created an ad hoc family of postWorld War II refugees who share space in a boardinghouse in what was before the war San Francisco's Japanese neighborhood. Six years later things are considerably different; the war's over, and African Americans have moved into the Fillmore District housing vacated by interned Japanese Americans. As the original residents struggle to find and rebuild their community, politicians and developers have plans that don't include black and Japanese American or any marginalized San Franciscans.
Gotanda's multiracial, multinational menagerie lives under the roof of a young jazz musician named Chester Monkawa. Monkawa is a long way from today's stereotypical hypersuccessful model minority. But although Gotanda's created his share of outcasts and rebels over the years, what's different about After the War is the difficulty the assembled characters have in dealing with each other. They're a happy family when things are going well, but when the pendulum swings the other way, they go with what's familiar seeing race as life's fundamental building block.
It's refreshing to see After the War and Blue Door raise questions without ready-made answers, but that fact speaks to the problems their playwrights face. If such issues were easily dealt with onstage, we'd be doing a better job with them offstage as well. In fact, it takes a lot of money and an almost pathological reservoir of self-delusion for anyone to deny that America is a long way from addressing its ills. Nevertheless, it's encouraging to see what Barfield and Gotanda one young and black, the other a veteran Japanese American playwright are doing.