The Bluest Eye, now onstage at Pasadena’s A Noise Within, tells the story of Pecola (a heartbreaking Akilah Walker), age 11, in 1941. Pecola knows she’s ugly, not just because she hears it often, but because she doesn’t look like Shirley Temple, Jean Harlow, or Mary Jane, of the eponymous penny candy. She prays for blue eyes, to make her look more like those paragons of beauty, to change her life from its own ugliness.
Based on Toni Morrison’s acclaimed first novel, published in 1970, The Bluest Eye was adapted by Lydia R. Diamond. African-American storytelling traditions abound: rhythm and repetition, movement and music. Scenes alternate with narrated memories and an occasional dance number, all in service to deep truths about racism’s evils. Time moves backward and forward, filling in gaps to reveal truths.
The Breedloves are poor, their only heat from coal that falls off of freight trains. They’re “peculiar,” an understatement for a family riven by incest and abuse. Pecola’s mother (Julanne Chidi Hill) describes her baby’s dark eyes as “a cross between a puppy and a dying man.” Her father (Kamal Bolden) impregnates her. An abstracted and choreographed fight scene between the parents beautifully reinforces that Pecola is practically invisible, even in her own family.
Although Pecola says, “Mama meant well,” she is placed with a foster family, including sisters Claudia (Kacie Rogers) and Frieda (Mildred Marie Langford). Claudia and Frieda accept their foster sister. Together they plan their days and stand up to life’s vicissitudes, like menstruation and the bullying of a light-skinned, popular girl, Maureen (Alexandra Metz). Pecola’s attitude toward blue eyes finds its polar opposite in Claudia, who has to talk herself out of hating little white girls and the dolls that represent their standard of beauty. The scenes with the three girls provide some of the play’s much needed punctuation of light and humor.
Pecola’s belief in God guides her unanswered prayers and her trust in the twisted preachings of Soaphead Church (the powerful presence of Alex Morris). He preys on her shame at having dark skin and her obsession with blue eyes.
As breaks between scenes, Pecola adapts passages from the Dick and Jane reading primers. The books represent the perfect White family, a contrast to her own extremely imperfect Black family.
Andi Chapman, who directed last year’s mesmerizing Both And (A Play About Laughing While Black) at Boston Court, conducts the symphony that is The Bluest Eye. Each instrument melds with the others, while retaining its pure voice. The poetry and power of the Morrison novel come alive onstage in this seminal and deeply affecting work.
The Bluest Eye is now playing at A Noise Within, A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena. It runs through Sept. 24 on Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. (Note that there is no matinee on Saturday, Sept. 2, no performance on Thursday, Sept. 14 and no evening performance on Saturday, Sept. 23). Tickets are $29-76 and are available here.