As a young black girl in Lorraine, Ohio, in the 1940s, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove has repeatedly been told that she and her family are ugly. Pecola plays with a white baby doll, idolizes Shirley Temple and feels invisible to her community in The Bluest Eye, currently running at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre.
Adapted from Toni Morrison's first novel and directed by Clayton Shelvin, The Bluest Eye examines how society propagates prejudiced beauty standards. Eleven-year-old Pecola (Constance Thompson) is routinely subjected to abuse and neglect, and she prays God will change her brown eyes into blue ones so people will notice her and stop doing "ugly things" in front of her. Bill Walker's simple and elegant set features wooden benches and beds; the backdrop has a giant eye that changes color as scenes change.
The narrative includes flashback scenes of trauma: Armed white men force Cholly (DC Paul) to rape Darlene (Allyson Brown), and Pecola's mother, Mrs. Breedlove (Idella Johnson), endures horrible treament. Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly fight viciously and the sequences, orchestrated by Alex Martinez Wallace, are intense. Johnson gives an excellent performance, creating a complicated Breedlove who is appears most complex in moments of restraint.
Sisters Claudia (LaSharron Purvis) and Frieda (Destani Smith) say marigolds didn't bloom the year Pecola came to stay with them. Purvis and Smith are warmhearted, pseudo-narrators who add a necessary layer to the show. Morrison's prose is marked by its richness, and the sisters fill in much of the exposition. Because of her difficult family life, Pecola doesn't have much of a childhood, but the sisters add light moments to the story. The two play off each other perfectly and are charismatic and energetic.
During a touching scene, the quiet Pecola is confronted at school by the "beautiful" Maureen Peal (Lila Blake Palmer). The girls have internalized society's beauty standard, in which lighter skin is considered more attractive — translating into Maureen's beauty and Pecola's ugliness. The sisters come to Pecola's defense in a powerful scene. Pecola's life is full of violence, but she is resilient. She's a tough character to play, and Thompson gracefully bears the full weight of the show, focusing on her innocence and allowing important moments to resonate.
The Bluest Eye's heartbreaking narrative is not easy to watch, but that's often a mark of important theater. The acting, direction and set design combine to make this a powerful production.