9/26/2021 THE BLUEST EYE Synchronicity Theatre
CHILDREN WILL LISTEN
See Pecola Breedlove.
Pecola is a dark-skinned, dark-eyed little girl.
Pecola lives in Ohio with her Father, Cholly and her mother, Mrs. Breedlove.
Pecola must call her mother Mrs. Breedlove.
Pecola is 11 years old.
For Pecola it is 1941.
Because of reasons, Pecola goes to live with Claudia and her sister Frieda.
Pecola wants to be like Shirley Temple.
Pecola wants to be like Jane of her grammar school reader.
Pecola wants to be like the white girl that smiles from her candy wrappers,
But Pecola is told by everyone that she is ugly.
This is the background of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, adapted for the stage by Lydia Diamond, and being given a new production by Synchronicity Theatre. (It was previously staged in 2007 by Horizon in a production I found singularly powerful and effective.) This play is funny, heart-breaking, horrifying, and lyrical, often at the same time. Filled with character and incident, this work embodies the lyrics of “Children Will Listen” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods; that is, if you tell a child that they are ugly, they will believe you. If you let your child overhear you saying they are “no one,” they will believe you. They will listen and learn.
Pecola Breedlove was a born into a family of little love, Papa was subjected to a horrifying racist incident as a young man in the throes of first love, and has carried that humiliation into his marriage, letting it eat away at his heart until it has grown a hundred-fold, creating a monster in place of a man. He is abusive, he is alcoholic, and he commits an act that is unimaginable.
Mrs. Breedlove eventually finds work with a wealthy white family, and transfers all her (limited) maternal instincts to their precious daughter, rather than to her own.
We see Pecola’s story through the eyes of Claudia and Frieda, and we can only assume their “omniscience” is based on the gossip they overhear, when they are church-mouse quiet in the next room. Ms. Diamond (and presumably Ms. Morrison) puts words in their mouths that constantly reminds us we are watching adult actors playing children, arranging their words in a syntax that flows and burbles in a lyrical stream that constantly reminds us that Toni Morrison is a poet-novelist whose young narrator has a charmingly adult perspective. We are also reminded that Ms. Morrison grew up in Lorain OH and was ten years old in 1941 and could very well have been Claudia herself.
This production is not quite as effective as Horizon’s 2007 staging (if my ancient memory has any claim to accuracy), with a few technical glitches with a projector screen saver distracting from the look and a few overlong scene changes impeding the pace. But it is filled with heartfelt and effective performances that do the play full justice, that do Ms. Morrison’s artistry full justice.
As the girls, Brittany Deneen Hines (Claudia), Kerri Garrett (Frieda), and Niara Simone Robinson (Pecola) capture the impulsive and frenetic attitudes of kids, bored too often to the point that mischief is the only option. Ms. Robinson also succeeds in making herself as “invisible” as everyone in the world seems to think she is. Always hunched over, always with downcast eyes, she seems to walk through life expecting each moment to be harsher than the last. (It usually is.) They are joined by Aminah Williams, perfectly bratty as a “high yellow” classmate and as the white daughter of Mrs. Breedlove’s employers.
As the adults, Dionna D. Davis and Dal’Sean L. Garrett have the unenviable task of portraying parents who say and do appalling things, yet still manage to invoke the tiniest spark of sympathy for their lives and histories. Tanya Freeman is near perfect as the stern but loving Mama of Frieda and Claudia, and Enoch King does double duty as Daddy and as Soaphead Church, a well-Dressed dandy who, in a child’s eyes, has all the answers and all the miracles stuffed into one magic ball. All the “adults” play multiple roles and slip into and out of characters as easily as a Sunday suit.
As directed by Ibi Owolabi, the cast tell Toni Morrison’s tale with the energy that only youth and experience in synchronous orbit can provide.
So, should we feel horror at Pecola’s fate, or joy that she achieves her dream, if only in her own mind? Should we be appalled at Cholly’s unspeakable act. or be equally appalled at the history that led him there? The answer to all these questions is a qualified “Yes.” Appalling experiences lead to appalling actions, appalling fates can have silver(ish) linings.
In 2007, I was the father of a young child (who now turns an irritatingly sudden 21 next month) and I experienced Horizon’s production of this play, these characters with a father’s experience. At that time, I was made constantly aware of how spongelike a young mind is, how a light joke could be remembered as a deep gash, how words whispered not quite out of earshot could lead to a call from a shocked teacher or baby-sitter. And in that year when my most apparently impotent wish was that she would LISTEN TO WHAT I’M SAYING (!!), she would turn around and remind me that she was listening all along.
Now, 14 years later, these frustrations are a rueful remembrance, making me question all the choices I’ve made as a parent until I’m reminded that my daughter has turned into a most uncommon adult. So, yay?
The Bluest Eye is a play that is sad and poetic and shocking.
See Pecola Breedlove.
She sees the bluest eyes she can imagine when she looks into her mirror.
She listens to the world.
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #SmartGutsyBold #TheBluestEye #ToniMorrison)
Kerri Garrett, Niara Simone Robinson, and Brittany Deneen Hines. Photo by Casey Gardner Ford