Of all the theatre companies who made pledges to diversify what is presented on their stages in the wake of the racial reckoning of 2020, A Noise Within has done the best job of actually amplifying Black voices in their productions. The first play of their “Balancing Act” season reflects that commitment with The Bluest Eye, adapted from Toni Morrison’s first groundbreaking novel, featuring Black artists, top to bottom, both behind the scenes and on stage.
It is a powerful, lyrical novel, adapted to the stage by Lydia R. Diamond – an adaptation that Morrison approved – that tells a sweeping story that Diamond manages to distill down to core moments in the lives of three Black girls in 1940’s Ohio as they navigate racism, hatred, and trauma in a world that doesn’t see them. Claudia and Frieda are sisters and their family takes in Pecola Breedlove when her father purportedly burns their house down. Pecola is the product of an abusive home and we are slowly given a glimpse into the generational trauma experienced by both of her parents that lead to events that change her life irrevocably.
Through key moments, from Pecola’s father’s early humiliation to her mother’s guttural screams to get attention in a maternity ward, the girls conflicted feelings towards the beautiful, light-skinned new girl at school, knockdown fights between Pecola’s parents, and one unspeakable act, The Bluest Eye gives us the how and the why in a searing story of the shame, humiliation, and pain of simply being born black in 1940’s America.
The play is thought-provoking on many levels not the least of which is a potent depiction of the importance of representation. In Pecola’s world of Shirley Temple and the like on TV, blonde haired dolls and blue-eyed blond children in the books of Dick and Jane, what conclusion can one have other than the world does not see or value you? The story can be a bit hard to follow and ingest at times because the characters step in and out of the story to explain things from a future perspective, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Sometimes this kept things lighthearted and brought out the humor while at other times it took the bite out of an emotional moment. Perhaps it’s a choice, given some of the brutality of the content, which is handled with discretion and grace.
The show is beautifully cast with several cast members playing multiple roles and in doing so, seamlessly create an entire community. Kacie Rogers brings the audience in as Claudia who serves as one of the main narrators of the story. Rogers brings a fierce defiance to the role that balances nicely with Mildred Marie Langford’s sweet Frieda. She’s the softer of the sisters and Langford has a bright-eyed earnestness that also is a nice fit for her double role of Darlene. Both Rogers and Langford convey compassion and true fondness for troubled Pecola.
Akilah Walker is riveting as Pecola. Her innocence breaks your heart in a pivotal scene where she excitedly goes to the candy store and is ignored by the shop owner. Every emotion from the childlike thrill of buying your own candy, to bewilderment, and ultimately the gut-wrenching realization that she is invisible, races across Walker’s face in this scene. Alex Morris brings his joviality to the role of Daddy and an eccentric intensity to the local spiritualist, Soaphead Church. Alexandra Metz is delightfully catty as various gossipy women in town and charming as the beautiful and popular Maureen. Crystal Jackson gives the perfect blend of toughness, sass and comfort as Mama while Julianne Chidi Hill brings a whole tapestry of life to the complex role of Mrs. Breedlove. She gives a shattering delivery of a monologue about how she was mistreated at the hospital when giving birth to Pecola. Hill has terrific chemistry with Kamal Bolden as Cholly, who is devastating as her damaged, alcoholic husband and Pecola’s father.
Dynamically directed by Andi Chapman, the production leans into the lyricism and theatricality of Morrison’s writing with a Fred Kinney set that is beautiful in its simplicity – bare – actors seated at the edges in grand, high back chairs with lighting and music that evoke a southern plantation, even an African plain. There are no set pieces or props to speak of, allowing the storytelling and the performances to take center stage. There is choreography as well that feels spiritual and ancestral – all lending itself to a story of pain that is handed down through generations.
The fact that Morrison’s book has been banned by 32 districts across the country in the last two years alone is reason enough to see the play. Kudos to ANW for bringing it to the stage and into the light to be experienced and discussed.
The Bluest Eye runs through September 24, 2023. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. The Bluest Eye is recommended for mature audiences ages 14 and up. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (626) 356–3100 or go to www.anoisewithin.org