By Robert Israel
Dramatist Lydia R. Diamond makes an honorable effort to adapt Toni Morrison’s novel to the stage, but with mixed results.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, adapted from the novel by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Awoye Timpo. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston, MA, through March 13.
Melancholy pervades Lydia R. Diamond’s one-act adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye. That mood is felt as soon as the curtain rises, when one of the members of the eight-person Huntington Theatre Company cast informs us that in the place and time the play is set — the ’40s in Lorain, OH — “no marigolds” bloom. It’s a sign that even the earth beneath the players’ bare feet is indifferent to their toils and woes. The rain that falls doesn’t signify fertility; it saturates everything, including buildings, making rickety structures “moldy, and moldy wood ain’t no good.”
Morrison’s 1970 novel is centered on Pecola, an African American girl taunted by others as “ugly” because of her dark skin and awkward behavior. She yearns for “blue eyes,” which she equates with “whiteness.” The book includes frank portrayals of incest, child molestation, racism, and more, which over the years has landed the novel on the banned school book lists in many American communities. It has recently become a favorite target by conservatives in their current censorship craze.
The challenge facing dramatist Lydia R. Diamond, who initially adapted Nobel laureate Morrison’s first novel in 2005 for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago (it was later staged in Boston, New York, and Minneapolis), was to find a way to draw on Morrison’s rhapsodic prose — which includes the aforementioned pensiveness and controversial themes — and make it work dramatically, with its poetry intact, on stage. Diamond makes an honorable effort, but with mixed results.
In the play’s under two-hour running time (no intermission), we are introduced to Morrison’s characters and learn about their tragedies and triumphs, which range from petty jealousies and grandiose pipe dreams to heartrending traumas. But these come off as a series of discrete, crystallized moments, experiences disengaged from the narrative’s darker, more expansive vision. Diamond falters because she has not found a way to tap into Morrison’s overarching voice, its sense of fate, of an omnipotent earth that yanks all of the characters into its “moldy” core.
This is to suggest that Morrison’s novel, while slim, may be too big for the current stage, which demands condensation for the sake of immediacy. There is the demand, particularly now, to cut to the chase. The attention span of audiences, narrowed by the omnipresence of mass entertainment shaped by technology (the fruits of a digitalized lifestyle), is shrinking. Producers are no longer patient with plays (aside from Broadway-minded musicals) that need time to develop a rhapsodic, sweeping action. The best contemporary dramas can do is to give us the visceral pulse of a place and the humans that inhabit it and hold us emotionally there until the final curtain.
And HTC’s The Bluest Eye doesn’t quite even do that. The set, designed by Jason Ardizzone-West, is theater-in-the-round, actually a semicircle. Audience members sit behind the stage as well as in front of it. The idea is to convey a sense of community. To quote director Awoye Timbo, it is meant to be an act of “coming together in a circle to tell a story [that] is essential to our humanity.” But the setup doesn’t work as it was intended. Those seated behind the stage experience (mostly) the players’ backs. Yes, the set’s circular design encourages the performers to move with an affecting fluidity of movement. It’s dazzling, the same way that a theme park carousel, with its many moving parts, colorful mirrors, and brocades, mesmerizes. Kurt Douglas’s choreography is inspired. But the cast rarely invites those seated behind the stage to join in. At the performance I attended, I noted only a few times when the actors turned around to face them.
What we are left with, then, are powerful moments of razzle-dazzle. But these affecting fragments do not amount to the“circle of a story,” despite the collective and individual efforts of a talented all-Black cast. There are standouts. Hadar Busia-Singleton, who plays Pecola, speaks in a sweet, singsong voice that tugs at the heartstrings. Brian D. Coats plays Soaphead Church, a conjure man who is eager to share the roots and potions he has inherited from Mother Africa. Coats effectively conveys the character’s aura of mysticism and wonder, skillfully pivoting on the balls of his feet, and when he goes into a stooped-over stance, he supplies a chilling image.
Even with its flaws, I would recommend The Bluest Eye. It is a welcome homecoming for the impressive Diamond, who pulled off a more effective adaptation with Harriet Jacobs, her stage version of the autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which I saw performed at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge in 2010. The chief reason you should attend the HTC production is to experience Morrison’s language, which the cast delivers with earnest might. We are given pieces of The Bluest Eye, and they are memorable enough.
Robert Israel’s Light on the Roads, a collection of stories and pieces, was published in 2021 by Harbinger Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.