"The Bluest Eye," the classic story about race, rage and rape, opens this weekend in Norfolk
March 8, 2019
The story of Pecola Breedlove has never been an easy one to hear.
When author Toni Morrison introduced 11-year-old Pecola to the world in her 1970 novel “The Bluest Eye,” many libraries banned the book.
Audiences have debated for years the difficult themes of Morrison’s classic: The life-long damage of sexual abuse, particularly Pecola’s rape by her father and subsequent pregnancy. How the dark-skinned girl prayed herself into madness hoping that if she looked whiter — had blue eyes — that her life would be better. Yet, despite itself, the story allows a few rays of sun to touch Pecola and her loving friends.
Virginia Stage Company and Norfolk State University Theatre Company will open “The Bluest Eye” Saturday with performances through March 24. The groups will offer opportunities to discuss the play beyond the stage, too.
Patrick Mullins, VSC’s director of public works, said the timing of the show is perfect with the current local and national discussions about racism.
Virginia Stage Company often holds post-show chats for productions centered around weighty social issues. Talks for “The Bluest Eye” will be held Saturday night and Sunday with others scheduled throughout the month.
With "The Bluest Eye," local high school students will see the play, and a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts will send local college professors into classrooms at Maury, Granby and Booker T. Washington high schools for group discussions about black identity, racism and one of its byproducts, "colorism."
While racism hinges on the notion that whites are better than darker minorities, "colorism" is the idea that lighter-skinned members of an ethnic group are "preferable."
After the Civil War, for example, it wasn’t unusual for mixed-race or “mulatto” blacks to migrate to their own sections of towns to segregate themselves from darker-skinned African Americans.
Colorism is a constant issue in Hollywood. For all of its success, the popular 2018 movie "Crazy Rich Asians" was criticized for not featuring more darker-hued actors. For decades, cosmetic ads in Chinese and Indian magazines promoted skin-bleaching creams and white facial powders to lighten the skin. Like the “Black is Beautiful” rally of 1960s America, India created a “Dark is Beautiful” campaign in 2009 to combat colorism.
“The Bluest Eye” is set in 1940s Ohio, and Pecola prefers to play with white dolls. In one passage, she dawdles while drinking out of a Shirley Temple cup so that she can marvel at the actress's face.
The set for “Bluest Eye” at the Wells is decorated with lines of drying clothes that speak to more than the era of the story; splashes of colored clothing vie to stand out among the rows of pristine, white laundry.
"Bluest Eye" director Khanisha Foster specializes in works with emotional heft. She directed the stage company’s “Disgraced” production last year that looked at Islamophobia, politics and religion.
Foster grew up in Evanston, Ill., the daughter of a black father and white mother, and learned about racism and colorism young, she said.
She could go to places with her father and feel the disdain the police and others had toward him, but spend time with her mother on the same day and get a much more welcoming reception.
But her upbringing also taught her to see the world in a more complete way.
“I have a nature to listen in multiple ways,” Foster said recently before a rehearsal, “so I understand that people process the world differently and move through the world differently but can actually have quite a lot in common."
Foster read “The Bluest Eye” in high school, and Morrison’s complex characters and rich language stuck with her. Morrison creates nuanced characters that the audience can despise and sympathize with at the same time.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that the play doesn’t scare me,” Foster said.
Lydia Diamond’s adaptation for the stage calls for adults to play the children’s role. The VSC website also cautions that the subject matter might be inappropriate for children 13 and younger.
Foster hired a fight and intimacy director, Sasha Nicolle Smith, who monitors the actors during rehearsals so that they aren’t leaving the stage with the trauma they portray. She also helps them plot emotional scenes so that they feel emotionally safe, Foster said.
“There’s never a case where it's OK to put any human at risk to any kind of violence for the sake of the art. And it's not necessary,” Foster said. “The art is to make something believable without it being real. … You can create really intimate, even really graphic-appearing work without putting your actors at risk.”
Even with the adult material, the play dares to be funny with laugh-out-loud and tender moments, particularly between two sisters who rally around Pecola.
“The great joy for me is celebrating these little girls and their friendship, just celebrating what we can do for each other,” Foster said. “They love each other not because they think they're supposed to, but because they genuinely do.”