The Bluest Eye
nytheatre.com review by Tony Pennino
November 3, 2006
First, in the interest of disclosure, I should let you know that I teach Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye as part of an introduction to literature class at my university. So I am extremely familiar with the novel, and I went to the theatre to review the dramatic adaptation of The Bluest Eye with a very clear idea of the book in my mind.
Morrison's novel, initially published in 1970, tells the tragic story of Pecola Breedlove through the eyes of her friend and classmate, Claudia MacTeer. Morrison also casts her net wide as she tells the stories of many members of the African American community in Lorain, Ohio in 1941. Morrison's focus is on the effects of racism in the African American community. However, her main examination here is not on the overt discrimination and physical violence that are significant components of racism in this country—though these elements do inform the back stories of some of the characters—but on the more subtle, insidious, and corrosive psychological effects of racism as portrayed in images that society deems to be the standard of human beauty: namely blond hair, blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, and a pale complexion. These images are omnipresent from the silver screen to advertisements to children's dolls to school primers; they are made manifest by such figures as Shirley Temple.
Morrison also tackles how racism poisons the African American community. She chronicles a hierarchy of violent abuse within some households and the tyranny of those with lighter skin over those with darker skin.
Lydia Diamond, in her adaptation, chooses not to include some of the characters and back stories from the novel. I particularly missed Geraldine and her son Junior, who are light-skinned and spend much of their time trying to suppress their more obvious African characteristics; their encounter with Pecola plays an important part in her descent into madness. Also gone is the history of Soaphead Church (James Vincent Meredith), whose ancestors suffered under the British rather than the American system of racial prejudice. Diamond instead focuses principally on the MacTeer and Breedlove families. In the end, though, this decision is the right one dramatically. In Diamond's work, the audience can clearly distinguish between the loving world of the MacTeer household and the poisonous one of the Breedlove household.
The story itself is a simple one. Pecola as well as Claudia and her sister Frieda—all girls approaching their teen years—live in a world where the paragon of girlish beauty is considered to be Shirley Temple. Pecola, who is very dark-skinned, dreams of having blue eyes, which, she believes, would make her beautiful. Claudia, however, reacts against this idea of blond-haired/blue-eyed perfection by destroying blond-hair/blue-eyed dolls. They even tangle with Maureen Peal, a very light-skinned girl, who insults them by screaming, "All of you are ugly ugly black e mos." [Note: This is a black-on-black insult from the period; it's taken from Morrison's book.]
At the same time, Pecola is becoming a woman, something for which she is far from prepared. Her father Cholly rapes her. Pregnant, Pecola seeks help from Soaphead Church. She desperately wants blues eyes so that she can be beautiful. He deceives her into killing his landlady's dog, convincing her that her act will allow her to have blue eyes.
Diamond does a terrific job in transporting some of Morrison's very lyrical prose and making them active and dramatic. She conveys the ambiguity and complexity of Lorain in 1941 beautifully. Her and director Hallie Gordon's strongest scene depicts an afternoon when Claudia and Frieda visit Pecola and her mother at the mother's work place: the home of a wealthy white family. Pecola accidentally spills a blueberry pie right out of the oven. The hot blueberries burn Pecola and stain the dress of the young white girl of the house—who is played, in a beautiful touch, by a large doll! However, Mrs. Breedlove hits Pecola and screams at her while gently comforting the little white girl. Chilling stuff.
The standouts in an all-around superlative cast include Libya V. Pugh, who magically transforms back and forth from the adult Claudia as narrator to the child Claudia as participant, and TaRon Patton, who magnificently captures the humanity behind the stern exterior of Claudia's mother. Special attention must also be paid to Alana Arenas, who makes Pecola beautiful even while she believes that she is ugly.