'Bluest Eye' at the Arden: Race, rage, and a descent into madness

DM1BLUE13
Jasmine Ward as Pecola in "The Bluest Eye," through April 1 at Arden Theatre Company.

While rereading The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first novel — written long before all the prizes, including the Nobel, the Pulitzer, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom were awarded — I wondered how anyone could adapt it for the stage. The style is intensely literary, wild with words, and stylistically thrilling in the way Morrison made famous. She does just what a great novelist is supposed to do: create a character’s inner life.

I am disappointed but unsurprised to report that Lydia R. Diamond’s adaptation, running through April 1 at the Arden Theatre, lacks both the coherent theatricality that would make it a play and the passion that would make it compelling. Under Raelle Myrick-Hodges’ direction, the story proceeds largely through narration as the actors tell us rather than show us (a lamentable contemporary trend). The  pace is much like the Dick and Jane book that the central character, Pecola, is learning to read.  This childlike effect ultimately trivializes the immense social illness Morrison addresses, as do the attempts at comedy and silhouette and slow-motion scenes.  And, oddly, costume designer Levonne Lindsay gives the girls sweet, pretty dresses, conveying nothing of their poverty, the embarrassment of having holes in your socks, their envy of the rich girl in class.

Pecola’s story is about a despair that descends into madness. She finds herself “outside,” which, distinct from being temporarily broke or homeless, means you have nowhere to go and never will have anywhere to go. Pecola’s drunken father burns down the family house after raping her. She is taken in by the Breedloves, a poor family in which the mother, called Mrs. Breedlove even by her children, is always angry and often takes it out on the two Breedlove daughters.

There are many events along the way, but all contribute to Pecola’s loneliness and misery. All she longs for are blue eyes, like Shirley Temple’s, having completely internalized the world’s judgment: Beauty is blond and blue-eyed, and she is ugly. The white teachers and shopkeepers treat her as though she were invisible.

The irony and perfect point of the casting is that actor/dancer Jasmine Ward is quite lovely and graceful, as well as being excellent in the role.  The bickering sisters, Freda (Renika Williams) and Claudia (Nicolette Lynch), are convincingly girlish, and their mother (Soraya Butler) and Mrs. Breedlove (Chavez Ravine) are both persuasively driven to different varieties of meanness, having been disappointed by men and the movies. The men, who start out as charmers, become violent and lazy drunks (Reggie D. White) or con artists (the excellent Damien J. Wallace).

Recently, a lovely video clip has circulated on the news of a young  African American girl gazing raptly at the new official portrait of Michele Obama. It is exactly that kind of inclusion and recognition that child will grow up with, exactly what was so desperately, heartrendingly missing from Percola’s life.

Theater

The Bluest Eye