Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Bluest Eye
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Girl Shakes Loose, The Great Divide, While You Were Out, and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence and Kit's review of Wicked


The Cast
Photo by Dan Norman
The Bluest Eye was Nobel Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison's first novel, published in 1970. It is set in Lorain, Ohio, from 1940 to 1941. Morrison herself grew up in Lorain, and in 1940 would have been nine years old, just like The Bluest Eye's primary narrator Claudia. Like Claudia, Morrison has said that her parents moved from the South to Lorain to avoid Jim Crow racism. Though the novel is not autobiographical, Morrison drew on her first-hand knowledge of African-American family life in a small industrial northern city at the end of the Great Depression. By the time she wrote "The Bluest Eye," those memories had been seasoned by the fight for civil rights and illuminated by the light of the Black Arts Movement and "Black Is Beautiful" consciousness. In 2005, playwright Lydia Diamond adapted Morrison's novel for the stage, paring away some of the plot and characters to create the taut, absorbing drama now having its Minnesota premiere on the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage.

Under Liliana Blain-Cruz's direction, The Bluest Eye holds the audience's rapt attention through an hour and forty-five minutes without intermission, with pacing that never feels rushed but moves ever-onward, never breaking stride. The collective vision of Morrison, Diamond, and Blain-Cruz makes the children at the center of the story endearing and relatable characters, while scaffolding around them represents a frame on which the evils of racism, poverty, neglect, and predatory sex take root, fanning out to block sustaining sunlight and air from their world.

Pecola Breedlove is the heart of the story. She is a pre-teen dark-skinned black girl whose mother Polly works as a maid for a wealthy white family, and father Cholly is an abusive alcoholic. Her family barely staves off poverty, her parents argue both verbally and physically, and Pecola feels ugly, unloved and invisible. She retreats into a fantasy of having her eyes turn blue, the deepest and brightest blue possible, just like Shirley Temple, or Jane in the reading primers, or Mary Jane, the girl on the peanut butter candy wrappers. Pecola believes that blue eyes will make her beautiful, loved and noticed.

After Cholly burns down their home while drunk, Pecola is placed by in foster care with the MacTeer family, until her folks get back on their feet. The MacTeers have two daughters, 9-year-old Claudia and 10-year-old Frieda, who compete for Pecola's friendship, though guileless Pecola is oblivious to this, caught up in her own need to escape her reality. Claudia and Frieda's parents are demanding and fussy: Mama bawls the girls out for every little infraction, while Daddy drones on about things like the proper way to stack firewood. But despite their harsh tone and high standards, there is no doubt that they love their daughters and take responsibility for their family. Their life is humble, but a far cry from the depravation Pecola has lived with.

Most of the play is narrated by Claudia, who is a bright, spunky and inquisitive child, strong willed and self-absorbed as befits a nine year old. Her half-baked knowledge of the way adults conduct themselves and her complete candor make her observations both entertaining and revealing. A light-toned black girl, Marie Peal, moves in, bearing the sense of superiority that was pervasive among those with light skin. Frieda and Claudia try to humiliate Marie, but Pecola only sees Marie as beautiful and kind. Pecola is the first of the girls to have her period, a startling event that prompts a discussion of where babies come from. One day Claudia, Frieda and Pecola call on Mrs. Breedlove at the house where she works. Pecola sees the tenderness with which her mother attends the white daughter of her employers, compared to how little affection she receives, confirming in Pecola's mind the cost of her ugliness.

In flashbacks we see Cholly and Polly in their youth, and how they came to be together. Polly had dreams that were erased by bad luck. Cholly's abusive childhood cast the mold for the husband and father he would become. This culminates in Cholly raping Pecola, leaving her pregnant. Finally, Pecola appeals to a charlatan "reader, advisor and interpreter of dreams" named Soaphead Church, begging him to invoke the spirits to give her blue eyes.

If it seems that I have given away the entire story, rest assured that the untold incidents that occur, soaked in atmosphere and laced with narrative detail, along with the textured, rich language with which the story is told, make The Bluest Eye far more than a simple outline of the plot can relay. Pecola's deep-seated inferiority complex and her misguided efforts to overcome what she believes to be her flaws make for a compelling story, and an insightful reflection on both perceived and actual realities for African Americans at that time. The play also offers a glimpse into the culture of mid-20th century African-American neighborhood life, and testifies on the weight of hurt and abuse passed on from one generation to the next.

The cast is perfection. Brittany Bellizeare plays Pecola, with a beautiful, soulful appearance that flies in the face of Pecola's belief that she is ugly, and she conveys Pecola's earnestness and innocence without ever seeming dim. Bellizeare invokes Pecola's anguish as she becomes more desperate and more damaged. Equally stunning is Carla Duren as Claudia. As the narrator of most of the play, it is her voice and perspective that informs us of the actual events and their underlying intent. Duren makes Claudia a naturally appealing child, unable to varnish what she believes to be the truth. J. Bernard Calloway's portrayal of Cholly made my skin crawl, for the brutality and ugliness of his behavior and for the pain he endured in the process of becoming a man.

Deonna Bouye is affecting as Frieda, the sister who uses her older (by one year) status to her advantage, and also as Darlene, a girl with whom Cholly suffered horrid humiliation in his youth. Stephanie Berry is sublime as Mrs. Breedlove, trying to carry her burdens with dignity, but unable to stave off resentment and emptiness. Mrs. Regina Marie Williams as Mama manages to telescope her love for her family through her cranky demeanor, and Shawn Hamilton pivots effectively between the girls' fastidious Daddy and the self-serving huckster Soaphead Church.

In a design by Matt Saunders, the vast playing space on the Wurtele Thrust Stage is left open, with the entire floor and back wall made to look like cement, with cracks through which weeds are growing. A ring of shrubs and more weeds surrounds the stage, creating a natural boundary that encircles the world inhabited by the characters. Furnishings are rolled in and out—beds, a kitchen counter, a dining table—but they are dwarfed by the immensity of the open space. Montana Blanco's costumes perfectly suit the 1940 time period and portray the relative status of each character. Light and sound design is first rate, and Justin Hicks' music provides undertones of emotional tension ready to unleash its fury at any time.

The Bluest Eye is a deeply moving story, a stirring drama, and a beautifully mounted work of theater, with performances that ring true throughout. It lays out some painful truths, but they are truths that need to be acknowledged. It is a great example of the kind of work that gives the Twin Cities a stellar reputation as a theater town—theater full of heart, brimming with ideas, and stimulating us to seek understanding of our collective past, present and future.

The Bluest Eye continues at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage through May 21, 2017, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets are $29.00 to $77.00. Seniors (65+), College Students (with ID) and Active Military - $3.00 off per ticket. Public Rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $15.00 - $30,00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Writer: Lydia R. Diamond, adopted from the novel by Toni Morrison; Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz; Set Design: Matt Saunders; Costume Design: Montana Blanco; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Sound Design: Scott W. Edwards; Composer: Justin Hicks; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Vocal Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Movement Director: Leah Nelson; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Stage Manager: Justin Hossle; Assistant Stage Manager: Katie Hawkinson; Assistant Director: Chris Garza; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound)

Cast: Brittany Bellizeare (Pecola), Stephanie Berry (Mrs. Breedlove), Deonna Bouye (Frieda/Darlene), J. Bernard Calloway (Cholly), Carla Duren (Claudia), Shawn Hamilton (Daddy/Soaphead Church), Caroline Strang (Maureen Peal/ white girl), Regina Marie Williams (Mama).


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