Honest life is messy. Toni Morrison has a way of showing life honestly with layers of beauty, pain, familiarity, discomfort, judgment and truth. When I first read The Bluest Eye, my definition of literature and writing expanded exponentially. I had never read a novel that sang to me and drew picture of life and the world in so much detail, colour, and honesty. Lydia R Diamond’s adaptation of The Bluest Eye presented by the Huntington Theatre, and directed by Awoye Timpo was able to share the detail and dimensions of Morrison’s work beyond what I could have hoped for given how much I fell head over heals for Toni Morrison’s writing. I was invited as a guest to review the performance and as always I went in blind to the performance. I like to see a show knowing as little as possible about it so I can take it in at face value. This time, of course I knew the book, and I had some trepidation because I worried that no play could do take those words and simmer them down to a 100 minute production without losing its soul.
When you first walk into the theatre, you see that the Calderwood Pavilion has been transformed into a theatre in the round or rather a space reflective of the storytelling circles of Black rituals. I had concerns about how Toni Morrison’s writing, which has such power and vibrancy would transfer to the stage. What I didn’t consider is what theatre would add to my experience of the book. I read the book as the white woman that I am, and I saw the play as that same woman. The difference is that when I read the book, I had to play those characters out with my own understanding of power dynamics, helplessness, judgement, pain, and innocence and had just the words on the page to guide me. When I saw the play, I watched the characters come alive performed and voiced by Black actors. They brought their Black life experiences to Toni Morrison’s characters that as a white reader I have no access to. On stage, I had access to both Morrison’s story and word smithing as well each actors connection to their parts. In addition, the audience, which was the most Black audience I have shared a seat with perhaps ever (not including church in Harlem) connected with the performance in a way that brought the non-Black audience members into the story a little bit more. There was an extra loud laugh or tsk connecting to a character’s mannerisms or reaction that you knew felt so familiar and real. Not only that, but this cast was an impressive one. This small cast of 8 brought to life the entire city of 1940’s Lorain, Ohio. Their body language and movement choreographed by Kurt Douglas gave a sense of place and time overall and individually helped you feel the weight of each characters’ life experience. Their voices in song brought you closer to g-d in a way that their characters believed a spiritual lifeline existed. Their characters were fleshed out not just from Toni Morrison’s words, Lydia R. Diamond’s adaptations, and Awoye Timpo’s direction, but the actors intonations and accents transported us, the audience, into the world of The Bluest Eye.
In a cast like this, it is so hard to highlight one or two actors, because they were all so strong. Hadar Busia-Singleton had the right balance of lovable, innocent and pushed outside the margins of her character Pecola. While Alexandria King’s character was ebullient and living childhood to its largest, it was King’s acting that shone throughout the performance perhaps overshadowing Busia-Singleton not because of their skills but because of the characters they each portrayed. While Brian D. Coats (Soaphead Church) and Greg Alvarez Reid (Cholly) each played characters with very different dynamics, they had the audience member shoulder to shoulder with them as they experienced their lives one loud and dynamic and the other quiet and lost. Ramona Lisa Alexander (Mama), Brittany-Laurelle (Claudia) McKenzie Frye (Mrs. Breedlove) and Lindsley Howard (Maureen) were each the star of their own chapters. The cast didn’t feel like a family, but like a whole town. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye there is no family in the sense of the word that I understand it. It isn’t about just families it is so much more than that. This cast brought even that element of the book to the stage. I’m not sure if it is because of the nature of the book or the way it was directed and cast, but these were the actors to do the book justice. They tell the tale of a community, a power dynamic, and humankind.
This was a simple, yet dramatic set with roots hanging above the stage, which was round and had what looked like a giant broken mill stone on the ground. This set was like the aperture on a camera and at some points would shine a narrow light on to three girls playing outside on a sidewalk and at others would broadly light up the whole city showing us meeting places in a field or travels across town to the white neighborhood. This seemingly simple round set that transformed in context only throughout the play was designed by Jason Ardizzone-West.
I rarely have an overt “a ha!” moment about costumes during a performance, because the clothes or costumes tend to work quietly and seamlessly doing their job of clothing a character. In The Bluest Eye, however, Dede Ayite and Rodrigo Muñoz’s costumes, aside from being impeccably made were poignant storytellers of their own. Seeing three characters simply put on three different cardigans told a whole story about each of them. The cardigans were a whole chapter of a book themselves one thick, shapeless, and brown, while the other two were thin and light with pretty stitching or fabric by the shoulder or neckline. It is details like that, which allow a whole exceptional novel to exist as a 100 minute play and be successful. The accessories, from hats to a yellow ribbon on a dress, and fans that made just the right “clack” when opened also played their part. Last, but certainly not least J. Jarad Janas’ hair, wig and makeup design which played a supporting role to all those costumes and accessories had me struggling to see the actors as anything but the age of the characters they played on stage.
Lighting and sound design, because of the sparse set design, also played a huge role in creating the setting and sense of place in the production. Adam Honoré created pauses in time and transitions from one place to another and one chapter of the story to another by playing with light from above and below the actors feet. Aubrey Dube, sound design, and David Freeman Coleman, music director, added to the production by creating sounds that brought to life sets that were left to the audiences’ imagination. When the actors broke into song, especially the first time, I was caught off guard. It was unexpected and hit me in the chest with a feeling of heartache and spirituality that I tend borrow from others. I’m not a spiritual person, I spend too much time in my head. In the right environment, like when I went to church in Harlem in my teens and when I see a performance like this, then the music knocks me out of my own head, and I feel that spirituality too. Maybe that’s why I need the performing arts in my life.
Whether you know Toni Morrison’s work or are familiar with The Bluest Eye or not, you will be able to follow what Toni Morrison wanted to convey beyond just the storyline. The production by The Huntington captivated the audience from the second the actors step on stage while the house lights are still lit to the last moment when you are left with a heart full of compassion and sorrow after spending an evening with the characters that come to life before you.
The Bluest Eye has extended their production, twice now, and will be playing through March 26th at The Huntington’s Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Tickets can be purchased online here.
In-person performances: January 28 – March 26, 2022
Select Evenings: Tues. – Thurs. at 7:30pm; Fri. – Sat. at 8pm; select Sun. at 7pm
Matinees: Select Wed., Sat., and Sun. at 2pm
Digital: Available until April 9, 2022
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission
The Huntington/Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
527 Tremont Street, South End, Boston.
Tickets to in-person performances and to a digital recording of the performance start at $25. Season ticket packages and FlexPasses are also now on sale:
- online at huntingtontheatre.org
- by phone at 617-266-0800; or in person at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, South End, Boston
Select discounts apply:
- $10 off: season ticket holders
- $30 “35 Below” tickets for patrons 35 years old and younger (valid ID required)
- $20 student and military tickets (valid ID required)
ACCESS PERFORMANCES FOR THE BLUEST EYE
Tickets are $20 for each patron and their guests. To reserve tickets please email email@example.com, call ticketing services at 617-266-0800, or visit us in person at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, South End, Boston. Accessible performances are supported in part by the Liberty Mutual Foundation.
ASL-INTERPRETED PERFORMANCE: Friday, February 11 at 8pm. The Huntington offers American Sign Language interpretation at designated performances for patrons who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
OPEN CAPTIONED PERFORMANCE: Tuesday, February 15 at 7:30pm. The Huntington offers open captioning at designated performances for any patron who benefits from having the text of spoken dialogue visible in time with the play.
AUDIO-DESCRIBED PERFORMANCE: Saturday, February 26 at 2pm. The Huntington offers audio description for patrons who are blind or low-vision at designated performances. Please visit huntingtontheatre.org/visit/accessibility for date/time information.
Large Print and Braille Programs will also be available for patrons at performances.