Academic journal article African American Review

Adapting the Bluest Eye for the Stage

Academic journal article African American Review

Adapting the Bluest Eye for the Stage

Article excerpt

Lydia Diamond's theatrical adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel, The Bluest Eye, opens with Pecola Breedlove, the story's eleven-year-old protagonist, standing at center stage. She holds a book and reads aloud from a "Dick and Jane"-style early childhood reader: "Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty" (9). As she reads, the other members of Morrison and Diamond's fictional community arrive and add their voices to Pecola's narration. Her parents, Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove, are the first to appear, followed by her similarly aged friends Claudia and Frieda; Maureen Peal, a light-complexioned classmate; Claudia and Frieda's mother (Mama) and finally Soaphead Church, whom we later learn is "an interpreter of dreams." Rather than speak in harmony with Pecola, each character relays the exploits of "Dick and Jane" in a unique rhythm and with a distinct pacing designed to stand apart from Pecola's. Their words do not blend together. Instead, they step on one another. The cacophony that results from the multiple narrations renders the story completely unrecognizable and the voices indistinct. Following the arrival of Soaphead Church onstage, the babel abruptly ends. The characters stop speaking. The lights fade on everyone with the exception of Pecola, who stands in the flood of a spotlight. Slowly, she pivots, and shares her profile with the audience before exiting the stage. In this brief moment, Pecola's previously unannounced pregnancy reveals itself.

The disharmony that greets the spectator at the start of the play foreshadows the traumatizing effect that a discordant community, including a dysfunctional family unit, can have on its least empowered members. The abuses of society are projected upon Pecola. Her "friend" Maureen Peal ridicules her for her darker complexion and repeatedly calls her a "black-ee-mo." Pecola's mother, "Mrs. Breedlove," locates beauty in whiteness, and as a result, invests herself in the happiness of the white girl for whom she works and not her own daughter. The emotional distance that separates mother and daughter is evident in the fact that Pecola calls her mother "Mrs. Breedlove" whereas Mrs. Breedlove is simply "Polly" to the white girl. Pecola's father, an alcoholic who himself is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, assaults and impregnates his daughter. It is the accumulation and weight of these experiences that transforms the narrative's protagonist into a prematurely old, "hunched" and mentally unstable tragic figure. As spectators of the play, we witness Pecola's decline. Following Morrison's lead, Diamond frames the story from the perspective of Claudia and Frieda, omniscient narrators who have "lived through it all" and reminisce about by theatrically restaging--their youthful experiences during "fall 1941," when they first met Pecola (7). We join them in their retreat into the past. This movement backwards in time grants us an opportunity to observe the destructive effects of racial self-hatred, but does not explain why it exists. Claudia, speaking in direct address, tells us matter-of-factly, "since why is difficult to answer, we must take refuge in how."

This article explores Lydia Diamond's 2005 stage adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye. The play, first commissioned by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, has been performed in theaters across the country, including the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, the New Victory Theatre in New York City, and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco, in addition to university and college stages. In examining the 2005 world-premiere production, this article introduces the challenges of adapting the writings of Toni Morrison for the stage and other visual media, chronicles how expectations of a "successful" adaptation have changed over time, offers a brief history of the Steppenwolf Theatre company, addresses the role that The Bluest Eye played in diversifying Steppenwolf's acting ensemble, and spotlights the unique contributions--the voice and presence--of Lydia Diamond within her play. …

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