Lydia R. Diamond’s adaptation “The Bluest Eye”—deftly dramatizing Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name—is gracing Pasadena’s A Noise Within (ANW) stage through Sept. 24. Fluidly directed by Andi Chapman and featuring a stellar cast, the play immerses the audience in what internalized racism feels like and the toll it exacts on vulnerable souls. Ethereal staging and choreography further transport the audience, making the play a moving must-see.
“The Bluest Eye” focuses on three young girls and their Black community in 1940s Ohio. Two are sisters from a relatively stable and loving family. One is not. Eleven-year-old Pecola (Akilah Walker) calls her mother by her formal name, Mrs. Breedlove (Julanne Chidi Hill), and witnesses her parents physically fight over her father Cholly’s (Kamal Bolden) alcoholism.
When Cholly purportedly burns down the family home, Pecola moves in with sisters Frieda (Mildred Marie Langford) and Claudia (Kacie Rogers). But Pecola is unlike them in more ways than one. Not only has her upbringing been more impoverished, she is obsessed with golden-haired child actress Shirley Temple and only wishes to have blue eyes.
We see Pecola periodically recite passages from the “Dick and Jane” reading primers used in schools that exclusively featured white children. She identifies with those children, but she knows she doesn’t look like them. She believes if she did, she would be loved and happy like they are instead of shunned and invisible.
Claudia, who frequently narrates (Rogers maintaining a clear and engaging tone throughout), also experiences whiteness as “normal” and preferred, but expresses her rage outwardly. In one hilarious scene, she mutilates a white doll her mother (Crystal Jackson) had given her, wanting to kill it while it keeps repeating “Mama” to her.
At school, the girls see how fairer-skinned Maureen (Alexandra Metz) is more liked and popular, better cared for and better dressed. Claudia and Frieda have fun calling her names behind her back as a way to express their jealousy. But Pecola admires her looks despite Maureen’s haughty disdain.
In another, more painful, scene, Pecola sees her mother show love and caring toward the blonde white toddler (amusingly yet eerily portrayed by a life-sized baby doll) of her employers whose house she keeps while heartlessly slapping Pecola and yelling at her for dropping a berry pie.
In every scene, characters grapple with pain ultimately rooted in racism. Shame, anger and self-hatred are swallowed whole. The pain, finding no resolution or outlet, gets passed around between loved ones. Cholly’s teenaged love for a girl was horribly warped by threatening white men. He now drinks and incessantly fights with Mrs. Breedlove—and enacts a drunken, twisted love on Pecola.
As Claudia says, the “how” part of what happens to Pecola—who we know from the beginning has become pregnant—is easy to explain. The “why” part is more difficult. As if analyzing themselves, characters sometimes explain what they are doing or why they act as they do. In this way, the play sometimes feels didactic, perhaps a result of condensing a novel into a play.
But the alchemy of Morrison’s words, reshaped as drama by Diamond and brought to life by eight fully immersed actors is emotionally powerful. Spiritually driven song and rhythmic dance (choreography by Indira Tyler, music by Maritri Garrett) occasionally punctuate the story, to cathartic effect.
And the stage (scenic design by Fred Kinney, with moody lighting by Andrew Schmedeke) is bare and spare, a simple platform surrounded by dimly-lit chairs to which the actors retreat when they are not performing—as if the haunting story picks them up and moves through them to enact their parts.
Each and every actor performs excellently—as intrepid yet vulnerable children, warm but hurt mothers, strong but imperfect fathers, familiar yet strangely hurtful community members—but Walker as young Pecola deserves a special nod for embodying the most defenseless of all of them.
All their pain comes to rest in Pecola’s body. Through her, we see the depth of brokenness a racist society can exact on human beings. Sadly, as we know, such pain persists today and Pecola and Claudia and Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove are alive among us, as are those who believe there is nothing wrong with portraying one race as more “normal” or preferred than others—to the point of banning books like “The Bluest Eye” that would say otherwise.
Diamond’s dramatized version of this provocative story—delivered by an invested troupe with beautiful staging—offers a compelling aesthetic, intellectual and entertaining experience not to be missed.
“The Bluest Eye” continues at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, through Sept. 24, with performances Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $39. For tickets and information, including talk-backs and student matinees, call (626) 356-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org. Run time is 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.