It’s been more than 50 years since the late Toni Morrison penned her powerful first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” which centers on the life of Pecola Breedlove, a young Black girl whose life is marked by such tragedy and racism that she prays for blue eyes. With blue eyes, she believes, people will finally see her and consider her beautiful, worthy of kindness.
Years ago, the book — written during the tumult of the1960s when the nation was erupting with civil rights protests, marches, and assassinations — was adapted for the stage by prolific playwright Lydia R. Diamond (“Stick Fly,” “Smart People”).
Diamond’s journey to script development was an emotional one. She had recently become a mother when she was approached by Martha Lavey, the late artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, and director Hallie Gordon about adapting the narrative for the stage. She had initially read “The Bluest Eye” in middle school, and then again in later years. The book resonated with her each time she encountered it, but Diamond was able to grapple with it more fully after she became a parent.
“My heart broke in a more visceral way than before,” Diamond explains. “And I understood it better as not just a story about the dysfunction in this one family, but a comment on the dysfunction of a racist America and how that permeated this town and this family.”
After a nearly two-year delay, a Huntington Theatre Company production of Diamond’s “The Bluest Eye,” directed by Awoye Timpo, begins performances Jan. 28 at the Calderwood Pavilion. The Huntington had originally planned to stage the play in March 2020, just as the pandemic was shutting down venues. But even as the current resurgence of COVID cases has caused further disruptions at the city’s theaters, the Huntington recently extended the run of “The Bluest Eye” to March 13.
Like the book, set in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, the play tackles the difficult themes of oppression, ideals of beauty, identity, the loss of innocence, and more. But there’s more to this narrative than sadness; there’s also hope, friendship, and love.
To create the show, Timpo, whose directorial credits include Vineyard Theater’s “Good Grief” and The Manhattan Theatre Club’s “Jitney,” was inspired by Black storytelling rituals, such as West African griots — orators, musicians, and singers who preserve the history and oral traditions of their culture.
“Griots were the people who held the stories of the community, that helped us understand the natural environment we lived in. They carried the stories that had lessons in them about how we should live,” Timpo says.
With that in mind, Timpo wanted to “create a storytelling space where we as a community of artists can gather with the rest of the community here in Boston and tell a story about who we are and where we’re going.”
So audiences will encircle the actors for a more immersive and intimate encounter. The experience aims to “create a space for provocation, remembrance, and healing.”
Pulling quotes from Morrison, researching Lorain, gathering images, and reading the Christina Sharpe book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” an interrogation of representations of Black life, were all part of Timpo’s preparation.
Morrison’s book and Diamond’s play follow the seasons, so the weather was another consideration. Sharpe’s book talks of “the notion of weathering for Black people,” Timpo says. “What’s the weight of the things we all carry with us?”
She compares the creation of a stage production to molding clay. “And slowly, it starts to take shape into some sort of a sculpture,” she says.
As it all comes together, Hadar Busia-Singleton, who will portray Pecola, decided to prepare for the show by doing fun things like playing video games, watching movies, and listening to mind-opening podcasts steeped in healing such as “Therapy for Black Girls” and an episode of “Race Through Education.”
Busia-Singleton — daughter of the late film director John Singleton and Akosua Busia, best known as Nettie in the film “The Color Purple” and screenwriter for the film “Beloved,” based on Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — wanted to do things that “spark joy,” she says.
“I think a lot of Pecola is hope and curiosity,” she explains. “And prepping on joy is where I’m most comfortable because I don’t think that her whole world is dark. There’s a lot of light in her.”
THE BLUEST EYE
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Jan. 28-March 13. Tickets start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org