In 1993, novelist Toni Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Among her works is her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), which was adapted for the stage by Lydia Diamond and is currently on the boards at the Anthony Bean Community Theater.
The play is set in Ohio sometime after the Great Depression. Young Pecola Breedlove (Coti Gayles) reads aloud from a Dick and Jane reader. 'Here is the house. Here is the family. See Dick. See Jane. See mother."
I remember Dick and Jane and Spot the dog from my childhood, but I did not understand that these insipid characters carried a different weight for African Americans. After all, the real world belonged to the Dicks and Janes. A young black kid could not hope to participate, and the hard, sad truth was right there in the book Pecola is using to learn to read.
There is some high drama and horror in The Bluest Eye, but Pecola's longing to be part of Dick's and Jane's world is gut-wrenching in its understated way. Pecola also longs to have blue eyes " like Shirley Temple or the face on the wrapper of Mary Jane candies and other white American icons of beauty.
The Bluest Eye vacillates between two households: the Breedloves and the Macteers. Much of Pecola's tale is told by her friends and schoolmates Frieda Macteer (Alozia St. Julien) and Claudia Macteer (Giselle Rebecca Nakhid). Not all the black children are as taken with fair skin and blue eyes as Pecola. One of the Macteer girls once received a blond-haired, blue-eyed white doll for Christmas and hated it so much that she tore it to shreds. She also hates Bojangles for dancing with Shirley Temple.
In any case, early on in the play, Frieda and Claudia prepare us for the tragedy to come when they announce like sibyls, 'There were no marigolds in 1941. We thought it was because Pecola was pregnant with her father's child." An unnatural act, they imply, unhinges nature.
Cholly (Roscoe C. Reddix Jr.), the father in question, is one of the mysteries of the narrative. He is a man adrift, a sort of pariah who develops a drinking problem, a violent streak and a psychic unbalance. He reappears in the story at different points and sometimes out of sequence, which doesn't make it any easier to comprehend his character or motivation.
He falls for Mrs. Breedlove (Donna King) when he sees her scratching her calf with her foot, and they marry. He also has a fling with a young lady and is caught in the middle of lovemaking outdoors at night by a gang of white men with a flashlight and a gun. The men force the lovers to keep on copulating " turning a moment of lyricism to humiliation. Is that when his spirit snapped?
When he drinks, Cholly and Breedlove get into rough-and-tumble physical fights. He goes to jail and when he gets out, he comes home drunk. He sees his 11-year-old daughter Pecola in the kitchen. She scratches her calf with her foot " mirroring the gesture her mother made. He loses control and rapes her.
Pecola stuggles to recover from the assault and feels rejected by the community because of her shame. Finally she goes to see Soaphead Church (Alex Lewis III), an interpreter of dreams and a snake oil mystic to ask him for blue eyes. He grants her request. She becomes convinced that her eyes have in fact changed. Have we entered the world of myth, fairy tale or psychological delusion? Maybe all three. It's the most haunting of coming-of-age stories.
Adella Gautier directs the show with a sure touch. The cast is excellent. A special tip of the hat goes to Coti Gayles, who brings a refreshing zest to the difficult role of Pecola, and to Alozia St. Julien, who does much of the narrating in an assured and precise manner.
- In The Bluest Eye, Pecola (Coti Gayles, standing) wishes for blue eyes like Shirley Temple.