Center Stage: ‘The Bluest Eye’ celebrates female playwrights
In 1994, when Bill Taylor founded the Theatre Conspiracy, he announced this bold mission statement: “The Theatre Conspiracy will offer quality, culturally, fulfilling, diverse, theatrical experiences not only to entertain, but to stimulate audiences by challenging their thinking, presenting comedies and dramas that are not over produced.”
With this latest production of “The Bluest Eye,” in the 2015-2016 season, celebrating female playwrights, artistic, producing, Taylor has hit the target and fulfilled this bold mission statement.
“The Bluest Eye,” by Lydia R. Diamond’s scripted version of Toni Morrison’s 1970’s novel, which is both piercing and painful, addresses a personal tragedy. “The Bluest Eye” was Morrison’s first novel, focusing on 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a lonely, young black girl living in Ohio in the 1940’s. Through Pecola, Morrison exposes the power and cruelty of white, middle-class America’s definition of beauty, and Pecola will eventually be driven mad by her consuming obsession for white skin, blonde hair and not just blue eyes, but the bluest eyes. She’s a victim of pop white culture and its advertising. Pecola believes that people would value her more if she weren’t black (and ugly). If she were white, blonde and very blue eyed, she would be beautiful and loved.
“The Bluest Eye’s” adaptation was commissioned by the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Arts Exchange Department, a community-outreach program, part of whose mission is to create new adaptations of celebrated and socially relevant literary texts. Due to sexual content, this play is aimed at teen and adult audiences.
The set, lighting design by Bill Taylor is ideal, consisting of a series of stairs and platforms supporting a clothesline; perfect for conveying 1940’s America, serving either a rural or an urban location.
Diamond’s powerful adaptation for the stage is a beautiful homage to the Morrison’s language and characters, but this is not to say that the play is not without dramatic challenges since it relies heavily on direct narration by two bickering sisters who are our eyes and ears into Pecola’s (Angela Pierre) world; grounded, no nonsense, sulky, Claudia (Cantrella Canady) and perky, fun loving Frieda (Katherine Oni).
The sisters are lively and bold, as they unravel Pecola’s story, even telling us about how Pecola experienced incest. They observe Pecola’s plight with a mixture of pity and dislike. They too share her sense of not fitting in, but they are saved from her sense of unworthiness by the loving warmth of their home presided over by a super attentive Dad (deftly played by Gerald Shipman) and their sharp-tongued, mostly empathetic mom (Patricia Idlette). The sisters clearly enjoy telling us not only about their version of the perceived injustices at home, but also about its easy warmth.
Many of the key scenes are not just narrated, but powerfully enacted – the brutal brawl between Pecola’s parents, Cholly Breedlove (Pottz Turlington) and Mrs. Breedlove (Jasmine Green), the traumatic day Pecola’s first menstrual period while she is staying with Claudia and Frieda, the humiliating sexual experience that poisoned young Cholly’s life.
It is in these narrative expositions that first time Director Sonya McCarter shines, her carefully almost choreographic staging gives the audience strong, telling pictures, while she handles the play’s darkest moments delicately, so they heighten the poignancy, instead of becoming a maudlin muddle.
This play is all about the many voices of its characters Pecola is sweet, the neighboring sisters perceptive, their Mama is fiery and fierce, as she oversees the lives of her daughters, Claudia and Frieda. In fact Claudia’s presence is pivotal. When she is given a white baby doll for Christmas,she responds by detaching the doll’s limbs, eyes, and finally its head, going into the body to see what makes the baby’s cry. This action alone speaks volumes.
The cast of nine is amazing, revealing these painful tales faithfully, without succumbing to syrupy commentary. The sisters Claudia and Frieda are remarkable in their contrasts, with childlike perspectives that are honest, not saccharine.
Pierre gives luminous, nuanced performance as Pecola; we see the roots of her pain in another fine Theatre Conspiracy debut – Green, in gripping portrayal of her damaged mother, also Turlington’s prodigious, effective performance as Cholly, Pecola’s equally broken, alcoholic, father.
Idlette as Claudia and Frieda’s mama, this actress is flawless as the strong, no nonsense mom, and equally believable as a warm, welcoming mother. The remainder of the actors are all well cast and dynamic in their roles; Angela Duncan is great as the white, snobby, schoolgirl Maureen, then morphing into gossipy neighbor, Carolyn Green is also potent as a commenting neighbor. In fact several of the lead actors skillfully play dual roles, Katherine Oni Frieda/Darlene, Idlette- mama/woman 2, Shipman-Daddy/ Soaphead Church.
This is a gut wrenching not to be missed powerful play, totally honoring Taylor’s mission statement. This is Ft. Myers Community theater at its very best, only playing a limited run till Feb. 20, so phone the box office now at (239) 936 3239 and remind ’em when phoning Marsha sent you.