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Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — Arden Theatre

Curiosity gnawed from the minute the Arden announced its current season would include a dramatization of Toni Morrison hypnotic novel about race identity, “The Bluest Eye.”

Since reading it decades ago, I’ve subscribed to Pantheon movie critic Pauline Kael’s theory that works of art find their perfect form, and if a novel is that form, plays, movies, operas, etc. based on that novel won’t work.

I also subscribe to the notion that works with the same title should not be compared, but each taken at its own merit in the form presented.

I know. These subscriptions sound contradictory. They are in a way, but I find they hold true.

Testing Kael’s idea, think, and think hard about how many true literary classics have been made into equal remarkable films. “War and Peace” won’t be on the list. Maybe Emma Thompson’s rendition of “Sense and Sensibility” provides argument, but has there been an amazing “Pride and Prejudice” of movie length? No. The 1940 version with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier is charming, but it concentrates on a segment of the novel. The 2005 version starring Keira Knightley rates kudos, but it doesn’t capture all Jane Austen puts in her novel. The Masterpiece Theatre version with Jennifer Ehle comes closest, but that’s in two parts.

Leave Austen alone for a minute. Where are great film renditions of Dostoyevsky, Dickens, or William Faulkner? There are iconic movies of “Gone With the Wind” and “The Godfather,” but they derive from second-rate novels that moved plot and were stingy with philosophy or ideas. Who dares touch Goethe or Mann or Musil or, to get modern. Michel Houellebecq?

Novels will win in any comparison because they are unlimited in length, can provide more information and thoughts than the performance arts, and can wander, mentally and epically around a landscape.

Sometimes a movie is a great movie even if it doesn’t serve the novel from which it derives. I’ve always thought Jack Clayton’s 1975 version of “The Great Gatsby” with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford to be a good movie. It may have been regarded as so if Clayton hadn’t called it “The Great Gatsby” and took hits about it being “suggested by…” Clayton hits some telling targets. His folly was missing Fitzgerald’s.

Toni Morrison is a novelist to the marrow. Her books jump around, they feed on language, frequently taking on a poetic voice and tone, they have dashes of sayings and references thrown in for texture, and they create a swirl, a whirlwind of thoughts and ideas that go beyond any individual story. “The Bluest Eye” can keep your thoughts in high gear for days with all it implies and all Morrison expresses.

So my curiosity was rife with wonder. How was a playwright going to put the ever-expanding multitude of content in “The Bluest Eye” in the confined space and time of a play?

Encouragement was immediate when I saw that Lydia R. Diamond is the playwright. Her work is smart and lively and roils with texture. Diamond, if anyone, could catch Morrison’s nuances and find a way to compact it into dialogue.

And, to my ever-appreciative delight, Diamond does.

“The Bluest Eye,” in Raelle Myrick-Hodges’s production at the Arden, builds to a point of fascination that eventually puts all Morrison brings to the table to the stage.

Like the team of writers on that 1940 “Pride and Prejudice,” a team that included Aldous Huxley and John Van Druten, Diamond works by intelligently simplifying Morrison’s cyclone of a text.

She makes passages more linear and self-contained. She makes them seem more sequential and immediately integral than Morrison. She concentrates more on Pecola Breedlove and the sisters who tell Pecola’s story while offering enough of the entire Breedlove story to preserve the important texture it provides to “The Bluest Eye’s” core. She stresses elements that clarify the complex, such as lingering shrewdly on Pauline Breedlove’s moviegoing habit in a way that makes us nod when we learn, or are confirmed in our hunch, that Pecola is named for Fredi Washington’s character, a teenager who makes a point of passing for white, in the 1934 “Imitation of Life.” (That character is called Peola, but the pairing is close enough.) She finds quick but memorable ways to capture character traits, such as Mama condemning everyone in a blue streak of accusation and self-righteousness when she’s angry, or the neighbor women gossiping away with vicious insipidness every time something unusual occurs in the Breedlove home. She does all of this while preserving the sense of an African-American community circa 1941.

Diamond does something else, too. She trusts Toni Morrison.

On the Arden’s program and in its marketing material, Diamond’s play is clearly called “Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye,'” and there’s good reason.

Diamond’s greatest gift was being able to distill Toni Morrison’s words into a flowing narration that required Nicolette Lynch and Renika Williams as the reporting sisters to deliver entire passages of Morrison’s prose.

More often than not, I am opposed to overuse of narration. Theater should show, not tell. In this case, though, it allows for “The Bluest Eye” to come the stage.

The words are Morrison’s, but Diamond engineers them so they flow, create a mood, and lead neatly to the dramatic scenes she will provide, often using conversations right from Morrison’s book.

In this way, the play “The Bluest Eye” is a shrewd and successful collaboration by two women of obvious and secure talent. You don’t see the mess Oprah Winfrey made of Morrison’s “Beloved” here. Diamond knew what to do to move Morrison’s language to a theatrical script and how to organize its jumpy storytelling. The softening and streamlining made “The Bluest Eye” accessible and playable while maintaining it core, staying true to its themes, and escalating Pecola’s story to its sad and horrifying end.

But is it sad or horrible to Pecola who seems to bask in her madness? That’s another mystery Diamond beautifully preserves.

The playwright shows her mettle from ‘Lights Up.” Claudia (Lynch) begins to talk about the peculiar summer of 1941 when no marigolds bloomed in her town. This is pure Morrison, but it sets up all by mentioning Pecola, her pregnancy via her father, Cholly, the superstitions used to account for the absence of marigolds, and the real agricultural reason for it.

Then, Diamond, with great support and possible enhancement by Myrick-Hodges,  provides a master stroke. She has Pecola, looking prim and almost manicured in a frilly white dress, come to the front center of the stage, sit down with the propriety her clothing suggests, and read from the “Dick and Jane” primer series that were endemic to American schools through the ’60s.

Myrick-Hodges actually does the staging, but by having Pecola read, lots of magic is done.

First of all, the inclusion of “Dick and Jane” is totally revealed in terms of intention. I remember reading “The Bluest Eye” when it was relatively new — I read it again last fall to have it fresh in my mind when for this Arden offering. — and having to go back and see if there was a context for the entire “Dick and Jane” text, typed in italics and with less and less space between words as the inane story progresses.

Diamond and Myrick-Hodges up the ante regarding Pecola by having her read, not from a primer, but from an oversized red book, with two-foot pages. The book stays with Pecola throughout Myrick-Hodges’s production, serving as a symbol of her admiration for the perfect family, the perfect white family, in “Dick and Jane.”

Pecola, like her “Imitation of Life” namesake, is drawn to the white. She loves Shirley Temple and wants to be like her, She drinks more milk than a body can hold because in Frieda and Claudia’s house, where she’s staying after a fire at hers, she can drink from a Shirley Temple cup.

Identity, particularly racial identity, is at the crux of “The Bluesst Eye.” Pecola’s admiration, adulation even, of anything white and the life she thinks white families live, as prompted by Shirley Temple and “Dick and Jane,” is contrasted with Claudia’s resentment of the same.

Pecola loves watching Shirley tap dance up and down steps with Bill Robinson. The same scene makes Claudia angry because it is Shirley and not a she, or another black girl, stepping fancy with Bojangles. Pecola, like Claudia’s mother, wishes she had a white, blue-eyed doll to dress and coo over while Claudia tears her to shreds because of its white features.

These two girls define the outer boundaries of Morrison’s depiction of a struggle with identity. Diamond also fills in the middle by not neglecting the stories of the Breedlove parents, Mama’s staunch middle classness, and the hoodad of the caustically named Soaphead Church.

You catch things as the Arden production proceeds. It’s interesting that Claudia can so plainly express her honest feelings about white children, exposition that is critical to the theme and is right to be told. You can’t help but imagine what would happen if a white character today spouted the same sentiments about minority children, especially if he or she was equally sincere.

Of course, reality is what gives fiction its depth, and “The Bluest Eye” relates truth as it stands.

Only once in Myrick-Hodges’s production is anything sugar-coated.

It’s during the knock-down, drag-out fight between Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, a couple known for their violent fighting. Pauline even comes to their fights with a heavy iron skillet in her hand (but behind her back).

Myrick-Hodges seems reticent about letting the intrinsic, chronic violence fly is this scene. She has actors Chavez Ravine (Really? Someone is named for a Los Angeles neighborhood?) and Reggie D. White mime their angry blows to a John Philip Souza march, rendering the scene as comic, and therefore mild and undercut, instead of passionate and intense. The call is for blind fury and vicious mutual hate. Myrick-Hodges provides a dance that keeps the stage lukewarm instead of blazing. I kept thinking we need the Media Theatre’s Jesse Cline to come in and show them how this type of fighting is done. Myrick-Hodges ends the scene with a kick that restores some of its vehemence, or at least leaves the audience to gasp at a final act of brutality.

This is the lone glitch in a production that otherwise was a lovely surprise.

Only because it accomplished something I was skeptical could be done.

As with the Breedlove fight scene, Myrick-Hodges stays with the mild and direct in her approach to narrative. As in her previous Arden outing, with “Two Trains Running,” she seems to take each scene as it comes and lets it stand for itself.

The difference between “The Bluest Eye” and “Two Trains Running” is “The Bluest Eye” builds. You like Myrick-Hodges’s smart, subtle touches, and revel in the overall acting, especially of the younger performers, but wonder if the director is going to create some intensity or keep things at their interesting and involving, not just moving, matter-of-fact.

Then the intensity comes like a wave, and you realize the actor and character behind that wave is Jasmine Ward as Pecola.
Ward is a revelation, one for which she and Myrick-Hodges deserve credit. If anything, the way Ward plays Pecola improves on Morrison and adds depth to “The Bluest Eye.”

In probably three readings in a 20/25-year span, my impression of Pecola is of a backward, awkward girl with a funny walk and only a vague sense of reality. I don’t think of her as dumb, but she doesn’t register as smart, and her being so out of touch and otherworldly renders her as peculiar, as one who doesn’t fit in and is visibly and emotionally unsuited to life.

I have great sympathy for Pecola but never come to love her the way I do Claudia or even Mrs. Breedlove, for whom I feel several degrees of pity

In addition, Pecola is always described as ugly, a special brand of ugly that can’t be erased or ignored.

Jasmine Ward erases all that is negative about Pecola. She makes you love her, want to embrace her, and teach her more than she can learn from Shirley Temple or “Dick and Jane,” or even from the sisterly Frieda and Claudia.

One revelation is how well Pecola reads. Morrison’s descriptions in “The Bluest Eye” paint her as too dreamy and neglected to pay enough attention to be literate.

So when Ward comes center front and reads “Dick and Jane:” with such awe and personal thrill, Pecola has to be rethought.

Right, Morrison’s book and Myrick-Hodges’s production can’t be compared. Ward’s portrayal and Diamond’s conception of her change the game.

That Ward is dressed in feminine white, in a dress that is decorative, dainty, and pretty, further alters the image of Pauline Breedlove sending her out in any rag she can scrounge. Ward’s Pecola is not a waif, a castaway, or a misfit. She’s a sweet, endearing little girl who needs some care and attention to make her blossom. This Pecola is a happy creature, and a pretty one in a pretty dress, like the ones worn by Shirley Temple or the blue-eyed dolls she treasures. She’d be self-content if she could only project the image she desires, of being white. This desire is catalystically and catastrophically intensified when Pecola witnesses the way her mother, who she calls Mrs. Breedlove, nurtures and comforts the spoiled daughter, about Pecola’s age, of the well-to-do white family for which she’s a housekeeper.

Ward’s Pecola steals your heart. The Arden stage is not dominated by Lynch’s Claudia, Williams’s Frieda, or Soraya Butler’s Mama, excellently played though they are. The day, the moment, the production all belong to Pecola, and Ward makes the most of it.

You want to protect this Pecola, to teach this Pecola to admire her traits and grow within them.

Ward even wins with the tiny, high-pitched voice she chooses, one that barely emits sound and sounds so feminine and bashful. It make me think of Diana Ross as a toddler.

Everything with which Ward endows Pecola makes her child to savor and a child to save. Ward is subtle, but she grabs focus in all of her scenes, whether they involve sparring with Claudia about identity, something Pecola doesn’t totally understand because she lives as she wants instead of thinking deeply as Claudia does, or depict an appealing quiet moment such as when Pecola finds three pennies on the street and can buy three Mary Janes — Note the Mary Jane logo — from a candy store owner who, is bigotedly reluctant to touch her hand to collect the pennies.

In noticing the candy store owner’s behavior, Pecola obviously perceives on some level the smarmier, more troubling black-white difference, but not as strongly as Claudia who complains frequently about people just not seeing her, particularly if a white girl or the haughty, high yellow Maureen Peal is in the vicinity.

Ward’s delicacy, agreeableness, and warmth inform Myrick-Hodges’s production and make it evolve so you can be moved by the ending and the fantasy in which Pecola is content, if via delusion, to live.

In a well-staged production with a well-crafted script from a classic American novel, Ward’s performance makes a significant difference. It charms while the rest of “The Bluest Eye,” good as it is, retains constant interest and gives you ideas to consider while never rising to being moving. It is Ward in the final moments of Myrick-Hodges’s production who creates the pathos that brings everything Morrison, Diamond, and the director have done to a boiling point of emotion and concern.

The Arden cast is a fine one. Nicolette Lynch is a pert, pesky Claudia who notices all and is justifiably outspoken about it. Lynch matures nicely in ideas and attitudes in the span “The Bluest Eye” covers. Hers is a bold, bright performance that helps to center the play and provide contrast to Pecola in terms of both viewpoint and grasp of reality.

Renika Williams is a calming companion to Lynch’s Claudia. She is the sister with tact and a mind towards getting along rather than stirring the pot. Lynch and Williams combine well when contriving sisterly mischief and in their eventual care for Pecola. Williams also does well in a smart part as Cholly’s first, and redeeming, love.

Reggie D. White is strong and textured as Cholly Breedlove. White brings out Cholly’s positive traits and shows how life, liquor, and Pauline trample them. Chavez Ravine exudes the power and anger of Pauline Breedlove while also showing her basking in early romantic dreams and working to play her exact role as she works in a white home, the only place she can escape the squalor and bitterness of marriage to Cholly.

Soraya Butler brings humor to her role as Mama, a steadying hand who goes off in a litany of blame and rebuke when her family’s behavior angers or befuddles her. Damien J. Wallace is all slick charlatan as Soaphead Church. Eliana Fabiyi finds the perfect note of snobbery, self-love, and brattiness as the privileged, coddled mulatto, Maureen Peal.

David P. Gordon provides a versatile set that allows for some illusion at an opportune time. Levonne Lindsay’s costumes fully embrace the characters wearing them. Her white dress for Pecola could be considered inspired.

“The Bluest Eye” runs through Sunday, April 8, at the Haas Stage of the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $52 to $15 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by visiting www.ardentheatre.org.     Grade: A-

 

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