Seeing Through

In the 1940's, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted their famous "Doll Test," in which young black children were given four baby dolls (identical except for color) and instructed to select the dolls that they preferred. Most of the children favored the white dolls, and the Clarks' astonishing findings were later used as evidence in the landmark 1950 anti-segregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Adapted for the stage with wit and grace by Lydia Diamond, Toni Morrison's classic 1970 novel The Bluest Eye explores a tumultuous and troubling rift between what we are and what we hope to be. The Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theater Company's production of the book, set in Morrison's own hometown of Lorain, Ohio, circa 1941, has been brought to New York by the New Victory Theater, and it resonates with both startling anguish and irrevocable truth. Most important, it bursts with life and an imperative story. Intended for young audiences, this resplendent and compelling play, about 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove's quest for blue eyes, should be required watching for everyone.

The rhetoric of the popular "Dick and Jane" books frames The Bluest Eye, as Pecola totes around a book extolling the untarnished, lily-white lives of a stable family so different from her own. As the play begins, she reads aloud from her book, and the rest of the cast slowly joins in, creating a confusing muddle of undistinguishable words. Clipped sentences—"Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile."—are the basis of this overly simplified, impossibly idealistic story that devolves into ugly noise—a cacophony of voices that drowns out Pecola's plaintive tones.

On Stephanie Nelson's effective, multilevel set, which is strung with clotheslines teeming with laundry in shades of rose and beige, the action springs back and forth in time to flesh out Morrison's complex characters. Frieda and Claudia, two sisters who are Pecola's neighbors and friends, narrate much of the story. They rarely leave the stage, and their presence as young witnesses gives Pecola's experiences added significance.

Pecola, we learn, has become pregnant with her father's baby, but we shouldn't expect to discover why. Instead, "since why is difficult to handle," Claudia warns, "one must take refuge in how."

And so Morrison begins to gently trace the players and events that accumulate to form Pecola's tragedy. Most centrally, there is her father, Cholly, an angry and vicious man who was abandoned as a baby and sexually exploited by white men, and her mother, Pauline, who lavishes loving words on the young white girl where she works but forces her own daughter to refer to her as "Mrs. Breedlove."

Even when Pecola steps out of her chaotic home, she faces the disdainful glare of the drugstore clerk, the chiding of neighborhood gossips, and, most poignantly, the white, blue-eyed visage that reminds her of everything she lacks. Pecola fastens onto this likeness—as embodied by Shirley Temple, pale plastic dolls, and, most animatedly, her well-groomed classmate Maureen Peal—and fervently believes that when God grants her blue eyes, she will be loved and no longer invisible.

Director Hallie Gordon has shaped a haunting and intriguing production, rendering horrific events (particularly incest and rape) without graphic display; instead, characters simply speak Morrison's words to relate these events. The imagination is a powerful thing, Gordon reminds us, and we are left to fill in the gruesome blanks.

The magnificent cast is anchored by the steadfast Alana Arenas, whose sweet, genuine voice is tinged with hope as she reveals Pecola's vulnerability and quiet determination. Monifa M. Days and Libya V. Pugh offer plucky and thoughtful characterizations of Frieda and Claudia, while Chavez Ravine and Victor J. Cole turn in nuanced portrayals of Pecola's sparring parents. TaRon Patton, as Frieda and Claudia's feisty and fussy Mama, nearly steals the show every time she takes the stage. Spouting love and criticism at lightning speed (and with crackling humor), she is the very personification of tough love.

Diamond has wisely kept much of Morrison's poetic language intact to glorious effect, as when Claudia ruminates on the love that thrives in her household, even under the thumb of her gruff Mama: "I could smell it—taste it—sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base. It stuck, along with my tongue, to the frosted windowpanes."

And love—of any kind—is what Pecola lacks. Morrison's novels endure in part because she gathers up so much humanity to patch together asymmetrical characters who overflow with heart, soul, and extreme desperation. And although Morrison claims to offer us only the "how" of what happened to Pecola, the "why" hangs over these events, tangled up with the characters' lives and stories, including everything that came before and everything that will follow.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post