Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Bluest Eye

If you haven't seen the Playmakers' fine production of The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison's novel set to stage by Lydia R. Diamond, you have five days left. The paring down it takes to turn a novel into a play can sometimes end up cutting out its the very soul. But this one works. It works in an odd way. There's a lot of comedy in the play, to the point of slapstick. I don't think of this as a comic novel--nobody could--but on the other hand, these lines are not made up. I did remember them as they happened, remembered that they were funny in the book. Once you put the book down, though, it's the overwhelming arc of Pecola's tragedy that stays.

So it's good that the play covers the whole range, gives you the whole dimension of these characters, which is not only comic and tragic but also something else: too wise. Little girls too wise beyond their years. Byron Woods in his Independent review picks up on this point:

It's one of the eeriest moments we've seen this year. Two young girls (Allison Reeves and Georgia Southern), dressed identically alike, are relating the gruesome details of another girl's partially interrupted dive into sheer madness—and they are doing so with all the matter-of-factness of a discussion of tomorrow's weather.
Whether or not director Trezana Beverley actually saw The Shining is immaterial at this point. When her taut production of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye puts the unspeakable in the mouths of babes, the chills flow from the Playmakers Rep stage like an electric current. The cruelty of distance in Morrison's ground-breaking novel and this production underlines our inability to intervene. So we watch, as the thin props keeping Danika Williams' poignant Pecola just above the waves of darkness are slowly pulled away, one by one.

Morrison starting writing this, her first novel in the early 1960s, while the ripples of Brown v. Board of Education were still being felt. So it's appropriate to connect the theme--a little black girl who adores Shirley Temple and Mary Janes and wants blue eyes more than anything--to the "doll study" cited in Brown to support the proposition that separate schools were by definition not and could not be equal. But Morrison tells us in an afterword that she knew a girl like this in her own childhood.

We had just started elementary school. She said she wanted blue eyes. I looked around to picture her with them and was violently repelled by what I imagined she would look like if she had her wish. The sorrow in her voice seemed to call for sympathy, and I faked it for her, but, astonished by the desecration she proposed, I "got mad" at her instead.

"Who told her?" Morrison wondered. "Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her."

Pictures and more from the production.

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