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Mimi le Duck

The Bluest Eye

This stage adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison's novel features several strong performances, but it's not as dramatically compelling as it should be.

By New York City
Alana Arenas and Chavez Ravine
in The Bluest Eye
(© Michael Brosilow)
Alana Arenas and Chavez Ravine
in The Bluest Eye
(© Michael Brosilow)
Adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison's novel of the same title, The Bluest Eye is a sad tale rendered poetically and featuring several strong performances. However, due to an excess of static narration, the play is not as dramatically compelling as it should be.

Set in Ohio in 1941, the story revolves around 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove (played by adult actress Alana Arenas), who prays at night for God to make her eyes blue. This desire is a symptom of her internalized racism; she feels ugly as she is, even though her friends, sisters Claudia (Libya V. Pugh) and Frieda (Monifa M. Days), observe that this ugliness "came from conviction" and that the entire Breedlove clan "were not ugly so much as they were just poor and black and believed that they were ugly."

Pecola's household is a turbulent one. The fighting between her parents results in her father burning down their home, thereby forcing Pecola to temporarily relocate to Claudia and Frieda's place. Some time after her family reunites, Pecola's father impregnates her, although the baby dies. This information is revealed early on; the play then jumps forward and backward in time to explore not just how these events came to pass, but to consider the more important question of why they did.

Lydia Diamond, who penned the stage adaptation, seems to have wanted to keep as much of Morrison's language as possible. Long passages have been lifted nearly verbatim from the novel, and while the narrative has been streamlined quite a bit, much of the play feels as if the audience is being spoon-fed exposition. The dialogue scenes work much better than the narration and allow for more significant character development.

Arenas delivers a nuanced performance, capturing both Pecola's social awkwardness and her burning desire to escape the life she's living. Pugh handles her passages of narration better than most of the other actors and is particularly strong in a speech about dismembering a blonde, blue-eyed baby doll that she had been given for Christmas. "If I could rip it apart, maybe I'd understand what the world thought was so wonderful about pink skin and yellow hair," she says, her words laced with sorrow, anger, and humor. Days is less engaging, but she has a good rapport with Pugh.

Noelle Hardy exhibits a dynamic presence as the girls' "high-yellow" classmate Maureen Peal. As Pecola's mother, Pauline, Chavez Ravine is also quite striking, and her strong singing voice is effectively utilized in a few gospel tunes that aid transitions between scenes. Victor J. Cole is good as Pecola's father, Cholly, resisting the temptation to make him an out-and-out villain; Cholly's back-story is full of sadness along with occasional flashes of joy. TaRon Patton plays Claudia and Frieda's mother, eliciting laughter with her rather cartoonish portrait. Rounding out the cast is James Vincent Meredith as both Claudia and Frieda's father and the enigmatic Soaphead Church; the actor is stiff in both roles and seems a little out of step with the rest of the company.

Stephanie Nelson's scenic design utilizes multi-level wooden platforms that stand in for a number of different environments. Clotheslines with sheets hung out to dry upon them literalize the "dirty laundry" of Pecola's family that's aired during the play. Director Hallie Gordon uses the stage environment well but has not always found effective ways to theatricalize the expository narration. She does make some of these passages work, as when three of the women cross the stage pretending to knit while gossiping about Cholly. The actual rape of Pecola is also narrated rather than shown, which is both tasteful and chilling. (Sound designer Victoria DeLorio's menacing underscoring and J.R. Lederle's moody lighting help considerably).

Still, in the end, too much of The Bluest Eye is simply told to the audience. As a result, the show seems more like a dramatic reading than a full-fledged production.


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