Hartford Courant: The Bluest Eye

Tragedy's Child

Black Girl's Struggle Of Self In White World

By DEBORAH HORNBLOW |Courant Staff Writer

February 29, 2008

Some of Toni Morrison's finest literary characters are haunted souls, black women, men and children tormented by the horrors of slavery and racism and its ugly outgrowths.

In her first published novel, "The Bluest Eye," Morrison fixed her attention on a particular kind of torment, the type imposed on an 11-year-old black girl by America's 1940s popular culture, and by books, magazines and movies that celebrated "pink-skin," blond hair and blue eyes, while rendering a child of color "invisible" even to herself.

Award-winning playwright Lydia Diamond adapted Morrison's novel for the stage, and "The Bluest Eye" that opened Wednesday night at Hartford Stage, and which transfers to New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre in late March, skillfully recounts this layered, tragic tale.

Director Eric Ting's production opens on Scott Bradley's deliberately veiled set. Clotheslines crisscross the stage, fragmenting the playing space as surely as the mind of one of Morrison's characters will fracture. From the clotheslines hang diaphanous bedsheets, each, as it's taken down, suggesting another layer to be peeled away to get to the heart of the story. The stage floor is painted to resemble an oversize illustration from a children's book — the white-skinned face of a little blond girl who might be Jane in "See Jane Run." In one area of the illustration, a shallow dip makes a puddle or a reflecting pool.

At the center of Morrison's tragedy is Pecola (Adepero Oduye), an 11-year-old black girl whose most ardent wish is to have blue eyes, the kind she sees on little girls in her storybooks and at the movies. Inherent in her wish is a racial self-loathing that betrays familial and social ills and culminates in an act of incest, and it is here that Morrison points her pen. "The Bluest Eye" unfolds as an anatomy of a tragedy, a gradual dissection of the characters involved and the forces at play.

If Pecola is the central character, she is not the voice of the play. That role belongs to Claudia (Bobbi Baker) and, to a lesser extent, her sister Frieda (Ronica Reddick). The girls are neighbors of Pecola's family, the Breedloves, and both function almost as narrators. It is the sisters who explain at the start of the play that Pecola "had her father's baby" and then invite an exploration of "the ugly, untidy 'how' of it." Feisty, funny and confident, Claudia and Frieda also serve as counterpoint to the fragile, somber and self-negating Pecola, whose name resembles that of the mulatto child, Peola, in the 1934 film "Imitation of Life."

Ting's cast performs beautifully. Baker is especially fine, demonstrating the intelligence and spirit of a black girl whose response to getting a white baby doll for Christmas is to pull off its legs and head. She and Reddick convincingly play sisters, messing with each other or bonding tightly when, in one scene, they are set upon by a new classmate, the pretty new white student called Maureen Pearl (Shelley Thomas). Oduye brings a sweetness and fragility to Pecola, the young girl who is unaware of the roots of her yearnings and whose life is an expression of society's injustices.Miche Braden is the archetypal Mama, a loving, firm, put-upon woman who keeps her children in line and mouths off when necessary. Leon Addison Brown manifests the virility, confusion and loneliness that lead him to "claim his manhood in a manner unthinkable, unspeakable."

Throughout "Bluest Eye," Diamond employs snatches of tunes sung beautifully by the cast members, in particular by Braden. Words and phrases echo, too, reinforcing the reality of what it is to be tormented. "Who will play with Jane?" "Will you play with Jane?"

The tragedies in Pecola's life can be seen to multiply when at last she does find someone to play with, someone who sees her blue eyes.

THE BLUEST EYE, Lydia Diamond's adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel, continues at Hartford Stage through March 23. The production then moves to Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, running March 28 through April 20. For Hartford Stage information and tickets, visit www.hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151. For tickets or information about the Long Wharf run, visit www.longwharf.orgor call 203-787-4282.