Tim Sanford on The Call
Those of you who saw Tanya Barfield’s Blue Door here in 2006 may be struck, when you read her Playwright’s Perspective, by a kind of shadow parallel between that play and Tanya’s description of the genesis of The Call. Blue Door tells the story of a super-assimilated African American math professor who becomes increasingly haunted by specters from America’s and his own ancestral history. The path that led Tanya to write The Call seems to have run in reverse. She describes how her natural predisposition to write about African American history seemed to leave her as the specter of her own personal story began to call to her.
I was grateful to Tanya for her openness about her personal adoption story, not because it explains the play somehow, but mainly because it makes it easier to talk about the levels of complexity and ambivalence the play contains. It might be understandable to assume that a play titled The Call about a white couple adopting a child from Africa might deal substantially with issues of global politics. But the tone of the play is much more slippery than that. When we start out, we think we might be headed into gently satiric territory about well-meaning white liberals. Yet there is no glib edge to her tone. The uncertain shifts in this couple’s journey seem grounded in humility, not presumption. Gradually, the title of the play comes to seem somewhat ironic in that there is no one clarion call of moral certainty that beckons them to answer. They are in fact pulled in a host of directions, by the burdensome requirements of the adoption bureaucracy, their own parental instincts, issues of pragmatism, their intermarital dynamics, self-doubt and a gnawing categorical imperative. The polyphony of calls threatens to paralyze them with indecision for a time. There’s no reasoning their way out of their conundrum, yet not choosing is also a choice.
Tanya’s perspective piece movingly shares how the personal and the political have merged in her own life. And for me, the wallop that The Call delivers stems from the skill and subtlety with which she backs the play into this truth. Politics is just posturing without personal investment, and individual dreams are ephemeral in a social vacuum. Playwrights attune their ears finely to their inner voices to hear a call to write a play, just as all of us listen for the call that guides our own aspirations and actions. I listen for a similar call when I bring a play to you. I look for plays that speak to all others as a culture and a nation, and I look for plays that speak to me personally. The Call does both. I am confident it will speak to you as well.