Oranges Are Blue

18. February, 2012 Theater No comments

Whatever anyone expected from the first season longtime ACT actor Steven Anthony Jones programmed as artistic director of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, San Francisco’s most venerable African-American theater company, it probably wasn’t a British play for one African-American and two Caucasian actors. But race and racism come up an awful lot in Blue/Orange, Joe Penhall’s 2000 play that played Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre back in 2005.

Dan Clegg, Julian Lopez-Morillas and Carl Lumbly in Blue/Orange. Photo by Steven Anthony Jones.

The story’s set in a London psychiatric ward, where a young white clinician, Dr. Bruce Flaherty, is meeting with Christopher, a black patient he’s expected to release the next day. Bruce has called in an older white consultant, his mentor Dr. Robert Smith, to assist him in the evaluation because he’s concerned that Chris isn’t nearly ready to face the outside world.

The trouble is, Dr. Smith won’t hear of keeping the patient another day. That’s not just a figure of speech—no matter how strongly Bruce expresses his reservations, Smith refuses to hear a word. He just holds forth about the various reasons that Chris is fine and should go home, no matter that he’s just met the patient whom Bruce has been treating for some time.  Smith cajoles and threatens, reasons and pulls rank, trying out any argument he can think of to advance his thesis. It’s normal for people to freak out sometimes; being cooped up with crazy people will only make him worse and lock him into a life track of institutionalization; Britain locks up too many black people; maybe they’re mistaking his “culture” for psychosis (“Maybe that’s just what they do where he comes from”); Bruce should listen to his elders and not make waves if he expects to get ahead; and, most importantly, it’s too expensive to keep patients more than the designated period of time. A few of his points sound pretty reasonable, just as others are abhorrent, but even the sympathetic ones are negated by the growing awareness that he’ll say anything to get his way.

To understand what goes on in the play it would be helpful to have studied up on how the psychiatric system works in the UK. The term “consultant” makes it sound as if Bruce simply needs a second opinion, but it’s indicated several times that Dr. Smith is his direct supervisor. All Smith’s cajoling and browbeating makes it seem as if it’s ultimately Bruce’s decision to make, but the way he keeps pulling rank calls that into question. It seems as if even Bruce doesn’t really know how the system works, because he’s not at all clear on the authority structure at the hospital and relies on Smith to tell him who’s in charge.

The biggest draw to the LHT production is that it stars Berkeley-based actor Carl Lumbly, who’s best known for his regular roles on TV’s Alias, M.A.N.T.I.S., and Cagney & Lacey but has also given some knockout stage performances at SF Playhouse in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Sunset Limited. And indeed, Lumbly’s terrific as Chris. At first he’s hyper and twitchy, dancing and gabbing excitedly about being able to go home, seemingly oblivious to what the rules are, why he can’t drink coffee, and even why he’s there. But his boisterousness soon gives way to anger and paranoia, and at times he’s compellingly still and cogent, even hilariously insightful. Other times he’s worrisomely dense and volatile. He speaks in a working-class English accent, and says “d’you know what I mean” a lot. It’s not a rhetorical question. It soon emerges that Chris sees the oranges on the table as bright blue (thus the title) and believes Idi Amin is his father. Naturally this changes nothing for Smith, who thinks Chris may be a goldmine of material for his book about “a cure for black psychosis” if he takes over his outpatient treatment.

Chris has been diagnosed with borderline personality, but Bruce is convinced he’s a paranoid schizophrenic and wants to keep him longer for his own good. The trouble is, Bruce can’t back that up with a new diagnosis unless Chris stays another month, and he can’t keep him another month without a new diagnosis.

Really, the cast is excellent all around. Recent ACT MFA grad Dan Clegg makes a sympathetic Bruce, a passionate, altruistic young shrink who may be out of his depth. We don’t have any particular reason to doubt his diagnosis, and he doesn’t either, but he’s also so insecure that he may crack at any moment even if he refuses to give in. He takes all of this awfully personally. They all do.

Local stage veteran Julian Lopez-Morillas gives a masterful performance as Dr. Smith, a self-important academic more interested in his own theories and the book he’s writing—and in making professor—than in anything having to do with the patients he’s seeing. He’s infuriatingly smug and weaselly, terribly condescending about cultural relativism and quick to assert institutionalized racism in the disproportionate diagnosis of mental illness among black Britons. The way he holds forth about it keeps making it clear that his own cultural assumptions about people of African descent are terribly racist—most notably, that their ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is inherently shaky, so it’s not necessarily a problem or even abnormal when they give in to delusions and hallucinations.

One thing the play does brilliantly is that it illustrates what a terrible psychiatrist Smith is simply through the fact that he never listens. Even with patients, let alone with Bruce, he doesn’t pay any attention to what they think or feel but simply tells them what they should think. That’s one reason it’s so funny and maddening that he accuses Bruce of not listening and of putting thoughts into people’s heads—because that’s all Smith himself does. Lopez-Morillas also beautifully captures how bad Smith is at reading people, how he’s always using highfalutin language that the patient doesn’t understand and making ill-advised jokes that are sure to be taken amiss. He never considers his audience, because the only audience he’s interested in is himself.

Lisa Clark’s set is terrific, showing 26 nearly identical green doors stacked two high, capturing chillingly the soulless container-like atmosphere of the institution. David Molina makes effective use of ambient crowd noise and pounding hip-hop between scenes in his sound design, but his dramatic underscoring of certain conversations throughout the play is intrusive, distracting, and seemingly random in its placement.

The staging by director Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe is strong in many ways, but it also feels slowly paced and overlong at nearly three hours. Some of that certainly is inherent in Penhall’s text. It’s not so much the length of the overall play that’s wearying as the fact that the conversations between the two doctors about the patient go on and on and on, covering the same ground over and over and over. Then the next time they talk they have the same conversation all over again. The stakes and emotions do build higher over the course of these scenes, but they feel much more circular than anything else.

While the point is certainly hammered home that they have a mandate to cycle through patients in order to save money, it’s not at all clear why Dr. Smith is so desperate to see that Christopher is released. He’s willing to do or say anything to make it happen, as if he’d jump off a building if the patient were kept one more day. Ultimately his inflexibility feels like a plot device to draw the battle lines of the play, but the results of the war of the shrinks are rewarding, especially how Chris responds to being caught in the crossfire. It’s a fascinating case study of the pathology of a very specific medical system, even if we lack the necessary information to properly diagnose it.

Through March 18
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
450 Post St.
San Francisco

Show #18 of 2012, attended February 11.

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