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Blue Door: The color bar 

Theatre in the Square is back in black

Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage presents Blue Door just in time to add some context to that discussion over whether Barack Obama is "really" black, or black "enough." The Marietta playhouse chose Tanya Barfield's drama almost a year ago, but its themes of African-American identity, authenticity and assimilation speak powerfully to racial issues on the current campaign trail.

In Blue Door a mathematics professor named Lewis (Rob Cleveland) spends a night of soul-searching after his (white) wife leaves him. He recounts anecdotes about his marriage, family and career, only to be interrupted by the haunting voices of several generations of relatives. Eric J. Little plays multiple roles, from an ancestor who lived in slavery times to Lewis' deceased brother, who accuses the mathematician of being an Uncle Tom.

Lewis gives off an almost unbearably antsy demeanor, being virtually unable to sit still or finish a complete sentence at some points. Early on, Cleveland's performance seemed a little close to his chummy stage presence as a practiced stand-up comedian, hitting the laugh lines a little too hard. Describing a condescending academic encounter, he says, "Silently I contemplate the square root of negative one." Cleveland's acting seems more appropriate as the play continues, and we more deeply appreciate the role's level of self-paralysis and suppressed emotions.

Directed by Gary Yates, Blue Door's strongest scenes put the spotlight on the family stories told by Little. When a young boy recounts his father's run-in with the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, Blue Door strikes an ingenious balance between the ugliness of racism and the comedy of Southern bigots pretending to be ghosts. Little's impressive versatility extends to his singing voice when he rings out some traditional African songs.

Blue Door features a few too many false endings and engages in some unnecessary metatheatrical gimmicks, such as suggesting that the theatrical audience is the same as the imaginary audience inside Lewis' head. Nevertheless, over a charged hour-and-a-half, Blue Door covers a great deal of thematic territory about the modern-day legacies of African-American achievement and institutional prejudice. It's going to take more than Barack Obama to sort all of that out in the 21st century.

Blue Door. Through March 16. $15-$20. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369.

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