Lydia R. Diamond took on a complex challenge when she set out to adapt Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” for the stage nearly two decades ago.
How to convey the surging lyricism of Morrison’s prose in theatrical terms? How to handle the novel’s combination of interiority and a digressive, multi-perspective structure? How to capture the power of a story grounded as much in authorial voice as in tangible event?
Diamond met that multiplicity of challenges so skillfully that her reputation as a playwright soared with the 2005 premiere of her adaptation. Now her original vision — born of Morrison’s, of course — has merged with that of director Awoye Timpo in a spellbinding new Huntington Theatre Company production of “The Bluest Eye” guaranteed to stay with you long after you see it.
Which you should, because it’s profoundly moving and wonderfully acted. There’s not a single weak link in the eight-member cast, who make the stakes for every character on the Wimberly Theatre stage wrenchingly clear at all times.
Then there’s the fact that while “The Bluest Eye” is set in Ohio in the 1940s, the issues at its core remain sadly current: the oppressive weight of everyday racism and the destructive legacy of racial trauma; the distorting effects of white standards of beauty on the self-image of young Black girls; the devastating consequences that can erupt within a community when a member’s societally imposed self-loathing is directed outward.
Director Timpo underscores the tangled, inescapable bonds of that community — its interconnectedness for good and ill — by presenting “The Bluest Eye” on a circular stage. When they’re not involved in a scene, actors sit on chairs on the side of the stage and watch closely, as if to signal that what is done by, or to, another affects all. Providing additional layers of mood and meaning are the occasional snatches of spirituals sung by cast members, individually or together. (Timpo has said that the storytelling rituals of West African griots, who incorporate songs into their oral histories, were part of her inspiration as she sought to create a “storytelling space” in the Huntington production.)
The title refers to 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove’s desperate desire for blue eyes, stemming from the girl’s conviction that her life would be wonderful if her eyes were that color. When we meet Pecola, portrayed by the extraordinary Hadar Busia-Singleton, her life is decidedly not wonderful. Pecola sees herself as ugly, having grown up in a culture that equates Blackness with ugliness. “How do you get somebody to love you?” she asks, heart-rendingly. Pecola feels lost in the world at the very moment she should be finding her place in it, and the ache of that coming-of-age quandary is legible on Busia-Singleton’s face.
On the homefront, Pecola’s mother, Mrs. Breedlove (McKenzie Frye) and father, Cholly (Greg Alverez Reid), are frequently locked in battle, taking out their separate and mutual disappointments on each other. Frye and Alverez Reid bring a riveting force to the twinned torments of husband and wife. (Frye also brings a marvelously expressive voice to her renditions of spirituals.)
The play is framed as the recollections of sisters Claudia and Frieda, winningly portrayed by Brittany-Laurelle and Alexandria King, who recount, comment upon, and participate in the story. The lucidity of Diamond’s narrative enables “The Bluest Eye” to handle time shifts — including a chilling, crucial episode during Cholly’s teen years — without losing the thread.
Throughout, the Huntington cast delivers vividly etched character portraits, including Ramona Lisa Alexander as the stern but good-hearted mother of Claudia and Frieda; Lindsley Howard as their newly arrived, light-skinned classmate; and Brian D. Coats as Soaphead Church, a self-proclaimed interpreter of dreams who plays a pivotal role late in the play.
Since its publication in 1970, “The Bluest Eye” has often been a favorite target of those who believe the best way to deal with books that make them uncomfortable is to ban them. Last month, a school board in Missouri voted to remove it from high school libraries in the board’s district, and “The Bluest Eye” and Morrison’s “Beloved” were included on a list of 16 books taken off the shelves of public school libraries in Florida’s Polk County for a “review of their content.”
Book-banners tend to be oblivious to irony, so presumably they didn’t notice that one of the core themes of “The Bluest Eye” is the need to be seen and the terrible cost of not being seen. Part of the value of Diamond’s splendid adaptation of Morrison’s novel is its proof there’s no silencing a message that needs to be heard and heeded.
THE BLUEST EYE
Novel by Toni Morrison. Adapted by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Awoye Timpo. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through March 26. Digital recording of performance available Feb. 14-April 9. Tickets for in-person and digital performances start at $25. Both available at 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org