The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye at Long Wharf Theater

David Begelman

Somewhere down the line theater audiences will be treated to a show as gripping and as dazzling
as Lydia Diamond's adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye at New Haven's Long Wharf
Theater. I conjecture they'll have to wait a bit-not, mind you, till the walls shall crumble to ruin, as
Longfellow put it. But close to it.

Originally commissioned by Chicago's Steppenwolf theater, where it had its premiere in 2005, there
are several reasons why The Bluest Eye meets the fondest expectations for audiences. The first is
the tightly crafted play of Ms. Diamond. This reviewer purchased a copy of it in the Long Wharf
Theater lobby, just to prove to himself that what he experienced watching this sumptuous production
wasn't all directorial smoke and mirrors. It wasn't. The play is a fully rounded drama that is expertly
layered around the lives of families in a poor black section of Ohio in the 1940s. Interactions among
its central characters come alive from the outset, and even the most casual remarks are charged
with meaning.

Ms. Diamond's playwriting achieves the most with an economy of style, and the intertwined lives of
its central characters-including the hapless Percola Breedlove, an 11 year old girl around whom the
most wrenching moments of the action swirl-are delineated masterfully.

Second, there is the uncannily creative eye of director Eric Ting whom, I am told, is given to sudden
epiphanies about direction he shares with his performers. These are exploited in ongoing
collaborations with them that have the effect of freeing their creative energies. Ting's adroit use of
flashbacks-the initial vivid image of Percola writhing with arms and legs flailing, as if she were being
assailed by a swarm of stinging insects-was a striking one and, we learn later, a physicalization of
her going over the edge into madness. The image is not found in the script, but like other of the
director's insights, works magically as a statement of things to come. The same goes for the design
of unison speaking or singing, as in a Greek chorus (some of which is script-inspired, although not
all). The only downside note is the confusion introduced by some of the double casting. But hey, give
a few, take a few.

Then there is the cast, as if sent from heaven.

The Bluest Eye essentially revolves around the lives of several youngsters and their parents whose
interactions are charged with complications, and the normal give and take of people everywhere. Yet
lives are forged in poverty and the inevitable scourge of racism, both of which color the attitudes of all
the principals. On the younger side, characters run a range from the innocent and immature Percola
(played in a downtrodden, yet radiant way by Adepero Oduye. Her character is without a trace of the
guile that often comes packaged in youngsters who are more adept at squirming around inattention,
homelessness and abuse), to the sisters Frieda and Claudia (parts given terrifically engaging
interpretations, by Ronica V. Reddick and Bobbi Baker) to Maureen Peal (played by Shelley
Thomas), a light skinned black girl whom the sisters dislike because she can easily pass for white.

The older set of characters are played by seasoned performers whose work on stage is of a high
order. Miche Braden as the Mama of Frieda and Claudia plays a no nonsense parent, chiefly
because she has to survive in a home whose drafty interior chills the bones, and which prompts
creative strategies about how to keep warm. (The audience hears, as if in a momentary aside in
upstage right, the extraordinary gospel voice of this artist. No wonder. She gave the most
outstanding one-person performance this reviewer had ever seen as Bessie Smith in another
production. American Idol fans, and a generation of off-pitch rock stars, eat your hearts out!)
Leon Addison Brown as Cholly, Percola's daddy, traverses poignant stages of life as a castaway
baby, a lover caught in the sexual act by a band of rednecks, the husband in a deteriorating marriage
to Mrs. Breedlove (played scathingly by Oni Faida Lampley, a playwright at New Dramatists) and
finally, the perpetrator of an incestuous act on his daughter, Percola. Ellis Foster plays the
gravel-voiced Soaphead Church, a.k.a. Elihue Micah Whitcomb, a neighborhood psychic, magician,
and hawker of sundry snake-oils whose dialect has a familiar prosody, and is aimed at convincing all
he is a notch above everyone else in earthly wisdom.

All characters define themselves by the degree to which their self-appraisals fail to meet standards of
the white world outside their community. Percola escapes into madness after giving birth to a child
born of incest that later dies. Her conviction is that she now believes she has the blue eyes of white
people: the self-created idea rescuing her from the personal hell of being black, ugly and useless.
Her friend Claudia mournfully laments that she wanted the black baby to live-"just to counteract the
universe of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals."

The Bluest Eye has the ablest collaboration of Scott Bradley's scene design (in which Mama's
ever-hanging bedsheets were turned ingeniously into scrims for other scenes), Russell H. Campa's
gorgeous lighting design, Rob Milburn's and Michael Bodeen' terrific music and sound design, and
the vocal and piano arrangements of-who else?-the exceptional Miche Braden.

What can I say? Run, do not walk, to see this stunning production.

The Bluest Eye is being staged at Long Wharf Theatre's Mainstage, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven
from March 28 to April 20, 2008. Performances are on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7pm,
Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. Info:
(203)-787-4282. Website:

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