“There is really nothing more to say — except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”
– Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
*[TRIGGER WARNING: both the play and this review address abuse, racial trauma, sexual assault, and incest.]
The key to recognizing one’s own privilege comes from recognizing that there are times when you’re not allowed to complain. White people aren’t allowed to complain when People of Color express their frustration of after centuries – nay, millennia – of white supremacy ruling the world. Similarly, (cis) men are in no position to complain about women’s frustration about millennia of sexism and misogyny.
This production is the fourth I’ve “seen” in as many months to both be penned by a Black woman and address hypocritical “white ally” racism. It’s the third of those to address the sexual assault of a Black woman by a Black man. Mercifully, this production doesn’t make the mistake of one of the former shows, which suggested that Black men are predisposed to rape.
No, Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s breakthrough 1970 novel is wise enough to never falsely label Black men as racists, just as it’s wise enough to never blame the victim for whatever trauma they’ve suffered. And everyone in The Bluest Eye has been on the receiving end of some form of trauma, be it direct or inherent.
Diamond’s script was meant to have a proper staging by Aurora until the pandemic came. Now it’s been reimagined as a semi-audio drama by director Dawn Monique Williams (currently directing a staged reading of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker for ACT). I say “semi-” because although the show sticks mainly to the self-explanatory prose of the novel, there are a few seemingly-random points in which stage directions are read.
The story itself has lost none of its power. Set in 1941, the primary focus is 10-year-old Pecola (Jasmine Williams), so consumed with her mother’s (Cathleen Riddley) own Black self-hatred and self-perception of “ugliness” that Pecola’s greatest wish is to take on the Caucasian features – particularly blue eyes – of beloved white stars like Shirley Temple. Of course, that sort of self-hatred isn’t very surprising when one considers the abuse Pecola’s mother and father (Michael J. Asberry) have suffered and pass on.
Pecola’s brief moments of reprieve are in the company of neighbors and sisters Claudia and Frieda (Jeunée Simon and Sam Jackson, respectively), who narrate most of the story and possess a comfort with themselves that can occasionally translate into anger against others.
It’s just one of the many violent way in which inherent racism – recently declared a “serious public health risk” by the CDC – misogyny, and abuse manifest themselves in Morrison’s first story.
The recurring elements of the author’s work are already apparent: the literally horrific form racism takes; the violent enforcement of gender norms by those in power; the near-indifference of something supernatural lending the story a magical realism. All topics that would later be further explored by the future Pulitzer-winning author and playwright. Diamond’s script jettisons some ancillary characters and no longer has Claudia narrating alone, but serves as a decent streamlining of the novel. Though, a final coda from Claudia and Frieda could have been jettisoned to preserve the impact Pecola’s final lines.
It certainly helps that this production has Dawn Williams guiding it. Here in the Bay, Oakland native Williams has garnered a well-earned reputation for being as empathetic with her casts as she’s unwillingly to suffer the bullshit interfering company execs. After closing out 2019 by directing one of that year’s best shows for Aurora, she joined the company as their first-ever Associate Artistic Director – something the company would definitely need, given the anecdotes related to it in the infamous “Living Document”.
Regardless, Williams’ helming of this production works well as a showcase for her skills as director, the skills of her all-Black cast of local talent, and the direction Aurora looks to take from this point on. At the time of this writing, the company hasn’t released any plans for potential in-person performances. Nevertheless, this show exemplifies how well a talented troupe can adapt the words of one of the country’s most lauded authors.
The Bluest Eye is scheduled to stream until the 21st of May on the Aurora Theatre website.
The show runs roughly 1 ½ hours with two 5-min. intermissions.
Be advised that this play revolves around the topics of abuse, racial trauma, sexual assault, and incest.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.