The challenge of staging writer Toni Morrison’s multi-layered dark tale, “The Bluest Eye,” has been deftly met at A Noise Within Theatre through Lydia R. Diamond’s adaptation and the able direction of Andi Chapman.
Setting one of America’s most significant novelists’ darkest works for the stage, was also a longtime goal and self-question of playwright Diamond’s.
As she noted in a recent interview, “Ultimately the ‘yes’ came from a deep commitment to bringing this work to young people for whom this story could be affirming, to older audiences who had come to love the novel, and to audiences who were coming to the material for the first time and might be inspired to then read the novel.
“It also occurred to me that in the wrong hands,” she continued, “this adaptation could become something else entirely. It is the story of racism’s perverse effect on a town, experienced through the eyes of the innocent.”
Julanne Chidi Hill is quietly inspiring as Mrs. Breedlove, a housekeeper for a wealthy Southern family, and the mother of two girls–Claudia (Kacie Rogers) and Frieda (Mildred Marie Langford), living in the 1941 post-depression South.
With a “floppy” right foot from a childhood accident, she ardently seeks her own love, who she finally finds in the handsome, flawed and troubled Cholly (Kamal Bolden). Bolden is impressive both in his confidence and in his eventual wandering sorrow.
All live under the shadow of racism in this repressive environment, and it colors even the simplest elements of their everyday life, settling deep within their consciousness.
Their fears and mistrust are vaguely manifested the next fall, when the family takes in Pecola Breedlove (Akilah A. Walker), whose family history is dark as her own skin.
Walker brilliantly shows Pecola’s brave innocence, born both from her upbringing and her daily existence.
Young Pecola is obsessed with Shirley Temple, from whom she draws inspiration for a better life, but whose fame and popularity fuels Pecola’s self-loathing.
Pecola believes that if she only had blue eyes of her own, she would be accepted and loved, instead of scorned and ridiculed.
Enter Maureen Peal (Alexandra Metz), a light-skinned black student, who immediately draws the scorn, fascination and envy of the three sisters. She is one of them, but she is miles away. Eventually she turns on them.
Metz delivers the role with a convincing “mean girl” insouciance.
Though it all, through brutal incident after brutal revelation, the sin of racism seeps through the story.
Eventually, the troubled Pecola—who is experiencing her first period and its own built-in drama—after a traumatic sexual assault from her father, Cholly, is motivated to visit Soaphead Church (Alex Morris), a local spiritualist, whose “treatment” simply sets her on a new path of madness, believing that her wish has come true.
Morris is a familiar, irascible face to ANW patrons, and he is once again true to form as a free, if dubious, gatekeeper to the spirit world.
No happy ending comes to the ensemble; there is no deliverance, only a sad near-acceptance of racism’s pervasive nature.
Since Morrison’s book is rich with deeply moving narrative, there is much stage exposition from Claudia, who tracks the story from her own perspective and that of the circle of friends and neighbors, as the unfolding story weaves through history and the present day.
The scenes unfold almost as separate set pieces with blackouts, as Claudia’ storytelling serves as Morrison’s consistent voice. Chapman’s direction is effective and deliberate, allowing the actors room, at a pace that creates the right amount of emotion and drama.
This is a dark and stirring work, capturing Morrison’s voice and story in a sad tale that continues to ring true in 2023 America.
Performances run on 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. Ticket prices start at $29, with student tickets from $18. show conversations, and student matinees offer diverse More information is available at www.anoisewithin.org or (626) 356-3100.