PlayMakers Repertory Company’s eyebrow-raising presentation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye will bluntly finger many a raw nerve. It takes a bold, brassy, unflinching look at racism in America, circa 1941—and today. Frequent PRC guest director Trezana Beverley works her own patented brand of theatrical magic on Detroit dramatist Lydia R. Diamond's PG-13 rated 2005 stage adaptation of Morrison’s controversial 1970 novel.
Beverley, whose imaginative and resourceful takes on Salomé, Yellowman, and String of Pearls, have provided some of the most memorable moments of the last several PlayMakers seasons, adds to her directorial laurels with this remarkable retelling of The Bluest Eye. She inserts a jazz trumpeter, blowing hot and sweet, at the start of the play to announce her audacious approach. She sees the play's characters and dialogue as a jazz musician sees a song—as a springboard for a series of inspired improvisations that transform familiar music and words into a fresh, new creation.
Scenic designer Robin Vest brilliantly evokes various locations in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, in the early 1940s; and lighting designer Peter West skillfully illuminates the action, keeping the dramatic focus exactly where it should be, scene after scathing scene. Costume designer Anne Kennedy vividly reproduces Forties fashions—and sound designer Michèl Marrano skillfully manipulates snippets of music and ambient sound—to add to the show’s authenticity.
PRC company member Danika Williams is a revelation as poor, pregnant Pecola Breedlove, a particularly awkward and homely dark-skinned girl who thinks that all she needs to "fit in" better at school and at home is white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, a la Shirley Temple. Guest artists Adrian Bailey and JoAnna Rhinehart give gritty performances as Pecola’s angry, hard-drinking, physically abusive father Cholly Breedlove, who takes out his frustrations on and Pecola's limping, long-suffering mother, the former Pauline Williams. By day, Pauline works as a maid for white folks; by night, she is Cholly's favorite punching bag.
Guest artist Lou Ferguson adds a compelling characterization as Soaphead Church, a mystery immigrant from the Caribbean whose alleged magical powers may be able to make Pecola's impossible dream come true, but whose smoldering desire for revenge—and willingness to employ Pecola to deliver the blow—make Soaphead mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
PRC's Allison Reeves and guest artist Georgia Southern give perky, crowd-pleasing performances as Pecola’s classmates and virtually only friends Claudia and Frieda McTeer, who narrate the show; and PlayMakers’ company member Kathryn Hunter-Williams contributes a sharply etched cameo as Mama McTeer, whose compassion and generosity are the exact opposite of the cruel indifference and stinginess of Pecola’s parents. PRC's Heaven Chijerae Stephens adds three memorable cameos as Pecola's classmate Maureen Pearl, movie star Shirley Temple, and a White Girl under Pauline Breedlove's care.
Although not appropriate for young children, this PlayMakers Repertory Company production of presentation Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is must-see theater for mature audiences. (This past Saturday, the show's opening-night performance received a rare for PRC standing ovation, with the spectators rocketing to their feet at the final curtain and cheering long and loud.) The Bluest Eye's scathing commentary on racism and child abuse will doubtless trigger many timely conversations. It is not just an entertaining play; it is an important contribution to the national debate.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye Tuesday-Saturday, March 6-10, 13-17, and 20-24, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 11, 18, and 25, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theater in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529). Note 1: There will be FREE post-show discussions on March 7th and 11th. Note 2: There will be a $7.50-per-student 10:30 a.m. March 8th Educational Matinee performance for middle and high school students, with free admission for teachers and chaperones, followed by a post-show discussion featuring members of the cast and artistic staff. (For reservations, telephone PRC director of education and outreach David Lorenc at 919/962-2491.) Note 3: The UNC Program in the Humanities and Human Values will conduct a special $120 two-day seminar, the "Artist of the Beautiful: Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye," on March 16th and 17th (for details, see http://adventuresinideas.unc.edu/level_3/2007_Spring/BluestEye.htm [inactive 10/09]). Note 4: Arts Access will audio describe the March 20th all-access performance, which will also feature Braille and large-print programs and sign-language interpretation, in addition to the assisted listening system and wheelchair seating that PRC offers at every performance. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid =168 [inactive 8/07]. Trezana Beverley: http://www.oddsocksproductions.com/odd_main.php?page=2b. Toni Morrison: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/press.html (Nobel Foundation), http://www.tonimorrisonsociety.org/ [inactive 12/07] (The Toni Morrison Society of the American Literature Association), and http://www.luminarium.org/contemporary/tonimorrison/toni.htm (Anniina’s Toni Morrison Page).