Volume 76, Number 20 | October 4 - 10, 2006

Photo by Joan Marcus

Leigh Silverman, director of “Blue Doors,” now in previews, and “The Treatment,” now at The Culture Project.

The personal, universal world of Leigh Silverman

By Jerry Tallmer

Before her on a table in the rehearsal room at Playwrights’ Horizons were two stacks of books about the black experience in white America. “Remembering Jim Crow” and “Bullwhip Days” topped one stack. James Baldwin’s heat-seeking essays,  “Notes of a Native Son,” headed the other.

“Incredible book,” said Leigh Silverman. In a week, “Blue Door,” directed by her, was to give its first preview. In an hour, the long day’s rehearsals would get under way.

“Blue Door,” by Tanya Barfield, is a play for two male actors, one of them (Reg F. Cathey) as Lewis, black, middle-class, cerebral, a logic-wielding mathematician in his 50s, married to a white woman; the other (Andre Holland) as Lewis’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, ghosts of two centuries of slavery and/or hideous lynchings.

It opens with Lewis’s wife deciding to divorce him because he refuses to go on the Million Man March. Black though he is, he does not wish to be identified as black. He doesn’t know what he wishes. “I watch my wife leave,” he says, “and as she leaves I divorce myself, I become two selves — myself and the self that watches myself” (an echo, oddly enough, of a line spoken by Peter O’Toole in the superb 1973 British film “The Ruling Class,” screenplay by Peter Barnes, which had nothing to do with blackness). 

“One ever feels his twoness,” a quote from W.E.B. DuBois tells us at the head of Ms. Barfield’s script — “an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

That’s Lewis’s situation.

“ ‘Blue Door,’ ” said its director, “is about a man who’s grappling with his heredity and identity.”

It seemed appropriate to remark, with a nod toward the books on the table before us, that James Baldwin — brilliant black artist in a sea of whites — had to grapple with his identity all his life.

“So do we all,” said Leigh Silverman. “And because Lewis feels shame about being descended from slaves, he tries to excel, so that people will forget he’s black.”

How about Leigh Silverman’s identity, the journalist asked this black-eyed, arrow-slim, striking young woman.

“Who? … Oh, me? … What do you want to know?”

Where were you born?

“Washington, D.C.”

Where do you live now?

“East Village.”

With anyone?

“With my girlfriend, who runs Locomotion, a dance theater for kids.”

Who are or were your parents?

“My father is Lester Silverman, a retired energy consultant. My mother, Janet Silverman, died when I was 13.”

Schools? Degrees?

“Carnegie Mellon. A BFA in Directing, an MA in Playwriting.”

What’s your birthday?  How old are you?

After a half-second’s pause: “Early 30s, how’s that? I’ve been in New York ten years, and I think this is my ninth show — plus a bunch of other things regionally.”

Among the New York shows she’s directed: John Patrick Shanley’s “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” at Second Stage; Lisa Kron’s “Well” at the Longacre on Broadway; Eve Ensler’s “The Treatment,” at the Culture Project right now; the Five Lesbian Brothers’s “Oedipus at Palm Springs” at New York Theater Workshop.

The NYTW, on East 4th Street, is in fact where Leigh Silverman, then doing various tasks there, first met Tanya Barfield — from Portland, Oregon, and a few years her senior — then on fellowship there. The two women have been working together ever since.

“I’ve directed almost everything she’s written. Am an enormous admirer of her work. ‘Blue Door’ was first done at South Coast Rep, and I couldn’t direct it because I was doing my Broadway show [‘Well’]. I’ve seen her come up from solo performer to Juilliard to now bursting onto the scene.

“We had the first reading of ‘Blue Door’ two years ago. It was very different. It still, now, changes every day.”

 Was that also true of “Well”? — Lisa Kron’s quasi-autobiographical piece about herself and her ailing mother.

“Absolutely. We collaborated on that for six years. It had productions at the Public Theater, the A.C.T. in San Francisco, and then Broadway” — where it got raves, ran for 10 weeks, and then, abruptly, closed. “There were changes every single day.”

And Eve Ensler?

“She came and asked me to help her on her V-Day [V for Vagina] this year. I had read ‘The Treatment’ and fallen in love with it. She had written one of its two parts especially for her stepson, Dylan McDermott, and we all three had this August free. Then Allan Buchman at the Culture Project got all excited about it.”

In “The Treatment” an Army psychiatrist (the actress Portia) is trying to effect purgative relief of the internal chaos of a sergeant (Dylan McDermott) who has taken part in the torture killing of a Middle Eastern “detainee.”

Television’s McDermott, Eve Ensler’s stepson — she wrote the part for him — is white; Portia happens to be black. Well, more than happens to be.

“It isn’t written that way,” said Ms. Silverman, “but for many reasons I thought that would be a very interesting choice. Most of the military these days is composed of African-Americans. In addition, here you have a white, handsome TV star [from “The Practice” and other shows] cast against a high-quality theater actress. She becomes the anchor of the play, gives it authenticity.”

Once again: How about Leigh Silverman’s grapple with identity?

“Well …  I think … ”

Her slender fingers played at her lip before she finally said: “No matter who it is on stage, the more personal the journey, the more universal it is.”

You’re still dodging the bullet, Ms. Silverman.

“Well, for me … I think I know how hard it is, being a woman director. That’s really hard to do. And then, doing what pays versus doing what’s interesting. And this nomadic life in theater — how long can it be done?

“I think I really grapple with how hard it is to do really personal work that is public. Eve’s play is a perfect example. We received this crazy beating from the press. To call torture ‘a big-ticket item’ ” — as Charles Isherwood more or less did in The Times — “is appalling. To me,” said Leigh Silverman, “that just proves how, when you do a big play, complicated issues provoke complicated responses.”

And then there was “Well.”

“We had a great run. Ten weeks on Broadway. Got 100 reviews all over the place. And couldn’t give those tickets away. How brutal is that?”  

Or as W.E.B. Du Bois was just saying: “ … whose rugged strength alone keeps it” — or him, or her — “from being torn asunder.”
 
BLUE DOOR. By Tanya Barfield. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Now in previews toward an October 10 opening at Playwrights’ Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200.


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