Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye is disappearing.
Between 1990 – 1999, it was the 34th most-banned book in America. Between 2000-2009, the title had ascended to the 15th rung. Between 2010-2019, it rose to number 10. In 2022, The Bluest Eye came in at number three.
In this sense, the prayer uttered by the already-broken protagonist 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove at the beginning of the play seems to be coming true: to be made invisible, to disappear.
Fortunately, under the accomplished directorship of Andi Chapman, Morrison’s gutbucket masterpiece lives onstage at Pasadena’s A Noise Within, through September 24. More than a half-century after its publication in 1970, neither the passage of time nor the ongoing attempts to erase Morrison’s voice have dulled its purifying blaze.
If you’re looking for a feel-good ode to Blackness, you won’t find it here.
If you’re looking for a whitewashed happy ending, then you haven’t read the book. If you’re looking for a feel-good ode to Blackness, you won’t find it here.
When you do attend, what you will witness will forever change your way of seeing.
Morrison made headlines by calling out the “white gaze,” the curiously schizoid way in which mainstream society makes note of those who are not white, and yet in the process makes them feel profoundly unseen.
Outcast, dark-skinned Pecola experiences this in every moment of her deformed life, from the white shopkeeper who looks through her when she buys her favorite penny candies, to the local townspeople of 1940s Lorain, Ohio who look away from her ugliness– and madness.
The only time Pecola is truly seen is when she admires her own reflection toward the end of the play, believing that Soaphead Church, the local faith-healer, has at last turned her eyes blue. She believes that having blue eyes like her idol Shirley Temple will at last render her lovable. The fact that, in real life, Temple’s eyes are dark brown like her own merely adds to the pathos of her delusion.
Morrison consistently ruffled interviewers by calmly explaining that she had no interest in writing about white people’s problems, and this fact alone distinguishes the story and defines this production. The author’s decision to place three little Black girls — Pecola, and her neighbors, the sisters Claudia and Frieda, who frame the action in their elegiac narration — at the center of her novel sent a shockwave through the literary establishment.
Critics, white and male, acknowledged Morrison’s incantatory superpowers as a Griot, but sonorously advised her through their windy reviews that commercial success would be magnified if she would simply consider the white majority in her telling. Morrison thankfully was having none of it, evident here.
White people are physically absent from the play. Instead, whiteness drifts ghost-like through the awareness of the characters, like the shrouds of mist that cross the stage intermittently during this 90-minute production, invisible but omnipresent.
Pecola gulps three quarts of costly milk just for the pleasure of seeing the image of Shirley Temple at the bottom of her cup, and covets her Mary Jane candies as much for the drawing of the little white girl (who she also imagines with blue eyes) on the wrapper as the sticky peanut butter-molasses-taffy treat itself.
The “Dick and Jane” readers of the period, mythologizing the white, suburban nuclear family complete with requisite cat and dog, are a persistent motif. Outspoken Claudia doesn’t share Pecola’s infatuation, however, and rants about her rejection of blonde, blue-eyed, white baby-dolls, as well as her willingness to do violence to little white girls.
To capture the hard-scrabble life depicted in Morrison’s prose, the evocative stage and lighting design here by Andrew Schmedake and Stephen Taylor convey emotion via a compressed visual code. A stately row of eight ancestral carved chairs link Lorain, Ohio to Mother Africa in memory beneath a suspended wooden plank.
Beyond this, there are no other props other than two white dolls, allowing the actors to conjure the scenes without literal limitations.
A Noise Within‘s thrust stage, extending into the audience with seats on three sides, is especially suited to the immediacy and intimacy of this production. In a few instances, the actors cross ramps into the 324-seat audience, a stagecraft choice eliciting gasps from the sold-out crowd on opening night.
In keeping with this minimalist approach, the story’s graphic sex and violence, which continue to earn Morrison’s novel its outlaw status, including Pecola’s rape by her father, are not physically enacted onstage. Not seeing this brutality adds to the viewer’s sense of escalating terror and dread.
Akila A. Walker as Pecola makes her A Noise Within debut here, bringing formidable cred as a director, writer, producer and co-founder of Good Mother Films as well as acting chops burnished at Classical Theatre of Harlem, New York Stage & Film, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Her visceral yet fragile portrayal makes us ache in recognition.
While it’s opportunistic to generalize The Bluest Eye into the broader experience of universal lookism, anyone who’s ever felt socially “othered” based upon appearance will wince with Pecola’s pain.
Kacie Rogers, a film and television writer and producer as well as a performer, delivers Claudia’s rapid-fire lines with a staccato fury that elicits perhaps unlikely laughter from the audience. This, too, syncs to the unrelenting rawness of Morrison’s story: At no point does the script or the actors let us off the hook. Who among us hasn’t freed an inappropriate guffaw in the midst of heartless despair?
Pecola staggers through her imploding world in bewildered dysmorphia.
There is no redemption in The Bluest Eye. Even the smallest symbols of familial wholeness — a pet dog, a pet cat — are unwittingly harmed by Pecola who staggers through her imploding world in bewildered dysmorphia.
When Pecola learns that she is now pregnant from the rape, Claudia and Frieda regret taunting her for her ugliness and peculiar ways, and pray for her baby’s survival. Their prayers, like all prayers in The Bluest Eye, go unanswered and even the marigold seeds they plant as an offering refuse to germinate.
In the voice of Claudia, Morrison writes “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow. The seeds shriveled and died; her baby too. There is really nothing more to say– except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”
But the play does not offer refuge in the form of any comfort. Instead, The Bluest Eye challenges us to interrogate what we see, and how we see it.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, adapted by Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Andi Chapman
Now through September 24, 2023
Running time 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Post-performance conversations will take place every Friday, as well as on Sunday, September 10. In addition, Thursday, September 7 is “Black Out Night,” an opportunity for audience members self-identifying as Black to experience the performance and attend a post-show reception.
A Noise Within
3352 Foothill Blvd, Pasadena 91107