Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Bluest Eye

Morrison play highlights Black History month at Karamu

At the start of the Karamu production of THE BLUEST EYE we hear the voice of Shirley Temple singing. Yes, Shirley Temple, the cute Caucasian child movie star with the curly blond hair and bright blue eyes. That song harbors what is to come.

Toni Morrison, the author of the book, THE BLUEST EYE, which was the basis of the play by the same name, is a Nobel Prize winner. She was brought up in Lorain, Ohio, a blue collar city to the west of Cleveland, a city mainly populated by African Americans, Puerto Ricans and Hispanics who worked, for many years, in the steel mills, ship building yards, and auto plants. A city which in 1940, the year of the play, was still segregated. Where Lakeview Park, a city facility on the shores of Lake Erie, banned blacks.

THE BLUEST EYE was Morrison’s first book. It was written in 1970 while Morrison was teaching at Howard University. Ironically, because the novel deals with racism, incest and child molestation, there have been numerous attempts to ban it from schools and libraries. In the 1980s, when I served on the Board of Education in Elyria, a neighboring community to Lorain, a group of ministers had this title on the list of books it wanted to be eliminated from the school curriculum.

The story centers on one tragic year in the life of a young black girl. We find eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove verbally abused and the victim of childhood incest. She is continually being told and reminded by her mother of what an “ugly” girl she is. She blames her horrible existence on her dark skin and brown eyes. If only she could have blue eyes, like Shirley Temple, love would follow. For part of that year she lives with a neighborhood family whose two daughters, Claudia and Frieda, tried to make a difference in her life, but the scars were just too deep.

In the afterword to a 1994 edition of the novel, Morrison said, “The book, doesn't effectively handle the silence at its center: the void that is Pecola's 'unbeing.'”

Lydia Diamond, who adapted the novel into a play format, has helped flesh out some of the void by adding monologues for Pecola that make it clear how desperate she is for a warm and kind touch, a voice of encouragement. To a degree, this makes Pecola’s final flight into insanity much clearer.

Karamu’s production, under the understanding direction of Fred Sternfeld, basically gets all it can out of the script. While the play is filled with compassion, because it is mainly a spoken book, and not a play with visual elements of physical action and conflict, it’s difficult to get immersed. The silence Morrison talked about is still present. We are observers, not participants.

The cast is generally fine. Andrea Belser is compelling as Pecola. She rings all the right notes out of a scene in which she is unknowingly cajoled into poisoning a dog, a dog, much like her, who is the victim of fate. Corlesia Smith gives a textured performance as Frieda. Stephanie Stovall is properly obnoxious as the heartless mother.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE BLUEST EYE is a good selection as a Black History month presentation by Karamu. It is the work of one of the country’s finest African American women writers and a local celebrity. It gets a credible production.