The Bluest Eye: dense and difficult, ultimately rewarding

The Guthrie, through May 21

Brittany Bellizeare in The Bluest Eye. Photo by Dan Norman.

Are you a conservative theater-goer? Do you insist that your plays entertain, contain coherent plots and characters with whom you can readily identify? If this is you, then the beautifully substantive The Bluest Eye (at the Guthrie through May 21), with its arms-length theatricality, its heavy use of narration, its confusing (to me, anyway) multiple casting, may not be the play for you. The Guthrie is an expensive ticket and, well, I wouldn’t want you to waste your hard-earned dough.

But (and there are many buts in a discussion of this rich piece): The Bluest Eye was adapted from the novel by the Pulitzer/Nobel winning Toni Morrison – and Morrison, it cannot be denied, is a national treasure. The play exudes exquisite Morrison-esque power.

The subject matter is the ongoing dominance of myopic white standards of beauty when applied to African-Americans – blue eyes, straight blonde hair, frilly polka dot dresses. These standards may not have the same toxic power they did in 1970 when The Bluest Eye was published but, as this adaptation reminds us, they remain influential. The main character, Pecola Breedlove prays to God to give her blue eyes, to help her disappear. Pecola has internalized the damaging standards of white culture. She receives little help from her chums Frieda and Claudia. Pecola’s descent into quiet madness is the main (but by no means the only) plot thread.

Frieda, Claudia and Pecola are played by three breathtakingly beautiful actors: Brittany Bellizeare, Carla Duren and Deonna Bouye. These three carry the play, imparting energy and creativity. I found them compulsively watchable (especially, imo, Bouye). As the archetypal “Mama,” Regina Marie Williams, all angles and elbows, thrills. As does Stephanie Berry as Mrs. Breedlove and Shawn Hamilton. Heck, this is the Guthrie; everyone is good.

But the narration. Adapter Lydia R. Diamond has interpolated large dollops of the Morrison text, and as a result the play often feels static and needlessly expository. It’s the old saw about poetry in the theater vs poetry of the theater. Diamond gives us plenty of the former, but of the latter, not so much.

The design! Wowdow. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has assembled a crack design team – Matt Saunders (sets), Yi Zhao (lights), Montana Blanco (clothes), Justin Hicks (music), Scott W. Edwards (sound). Etc. They have fashioned some wonderful eye and ear candy. Lovely.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published and his screenplays, A Slaying Song Tonight and The Deflowering Of Father Trimleigh, are under option. Please visit his informational website.




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