Curiosity gnawed from the minute the Arden announced its current season would include a dramatization of THE BLUEST EYE, Toni Morrison hypnotic novel about race identity.
I subscribe to movie critic Pauline Kael’s theory that works of art find their perfect form, and if a novel is that form, plays, movies, operas, etc. based on that novel won’t work. But I also subscribe to the notion that works with the same title should not be compared, but each taken at its own merit in the form presented.
Toni Morrison is a novelist to the marrow. Her books jump around, they feed on language, frequently taking on a poetic voice and tone, they have dashes of sayings and references thrown in for texture, and they create a swirl, a whirlwind of thoughts and ideas that go beyond any individual story. THE BLUEST EYE can keep your thoughts in high gear for days with all it implies and all Morrison expresses. How was a playwright going to put the ever-expanding multitude of content in THE BLUEST EYE in the confined space and time of a play?
To my ever-appreciative delight, Lydia R. Diamond does. She works by intelligently simplifying Morrison’s cyclone of a text. She makes passages more linear and self-contained. She stresses elements that clarify the complex and finds quick but memorable ways to capture character traits, Diamond does something else, too. She trusts Toni Morrison.
On the Arden’s program and in its marketing material, Diamond’s play is clearly called “Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye,” and there’s good reason. In Raelle Myrick-Hodges’s production at the Arden, the play builds to a point of fascination that eventually puts all Morrison brings to the table to the stage. The words are Morrison’s, but Diamond engineers them so they flow, create a mood, and lead neatly to the dramatic scenes she will provide, often using conversations right from Morrison’s book.
Identity, particularly racial identity, is at the crux of THE BLUEST EYE. At the center of the narrative, Morrison contrasts Pecola’s adulation of anything white and the life she thinks white families live, as prompted by Shirley Temple and “Dick and Jane” primer series, with her friend Frieda’s resentment of the same. Pecola wishes she had a white, blue-eyed doll to dress and coo over while Frieda tears hers to shreds because of its white features. These two girls define the outer boundaries of Morrison’s depiction of a struggle with identity. Diamond also fills in the middle by not neglecting the stories of the girls’ parents.
David P. Gordon provides a versatile set that allows for some illusion at an opportune time. Levonne Lindsay’s costumes fully embrace the characters wearing them. Her white dress for Pecola is inspired.
The Arden cast is a fine one. Renika Williams is a pert, pesky Frieda who notices all and is justifiably outspoken about it. Nicolette Lynch is a calming companion to William’s Frieda. Reggie D. White is strong and textured as Charlie Breedlove. Soraya Butler brings humor to her role as Mama. Damien J. Wallace is all slick charlatan as Soaphead Church. Eliana Fabiyi finds the perfect note of snobbery, self-love, and brattiness as the privileged, coddled mulatto, Maureen Peal.
But in a well-staged production with a well-crafted script from a classic American novel, Jasmine Ward’s performance as Pecola is a revelation, one for which she and Myrick-Hodges deserve credit. In ways, her portrayal improves on Morrison’s work and adds depth to THE BLUEST EYE. Read more on NealsPaper >>>
[The Haas Stage of the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street] March 1-April 8, 2018; ardentheatre.org.