New Haven, Connecticut, UNITED STATES — No one ever said growing up was supposed to be easy. And if the plot of the stage production of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is any indicator, it’s not.
The play, performed by the Hartford Stage Company, focuses on the story of an African American girl growing up in Ohio in the 1940s. Living with an unsympathetic mother and an abusive father with his own set of issues, the young Pecola Breedlove faces growing up in a tough environment alone.
In the play, Pecola (Adepero Oduye), finds temporary stability when she is forced to live with the family of classmates Frieda (Ronica V. Reddick) and Claudia (Bobbi Baker). Claudia serves as the play’s narrator. Although a young character, Claudia is an intelligent and witty observer of her own family and Pecola’s. She effectively introduces various characters into the story, including her incessantly ranting father.
With the exception of the fact that Pecola is known to live with bad parents, the plot starts off fairly lighthearted. But after one particular telling scene when offhandedly asked if she had ever seen a naked man before, the audience finds out that she had indeed seen her father naked before.
Then the turbulent relationship of Pecola’s parents is explored in a series of flashbacks. The audience realizes that things turned sour for her father, Cholly (Leon Addison Brown), when, in his youth, he was forced by a few men to rape a woman. Afterwards, in one drunken rage, he got his own daughter pregnant.
The play then focuses on the more somber themes of incest and teen pregnancy, as the audience sees Pecola transformed from a confused yet seemingly happy teen to a torn and troubled pregnant young woman. She is forced to deal with her devastation and the community’s harsh gossip about her nearly alone, although aided by Claudia and Frieda’s prayers. They promise God, “Let Pecola’s baby live, and we’ll be good for a whole month.”
Not only does the plot revolve around the events leading up to Pecola’s pregnancy, but it also deals with the topic of racism. Pecola desires to be more like the white actresses at the time, including Shirley Temple and Jean Harlow, and sincerely prays for blue eyes so that she can be beautiful. Claudia discusses this desire with contempt. She, more than the two other girls, is truly frustrated with being treated differently than white girls her age, and even facetiously expresses the desire to dismember her little white dolls.
One particularly interesting aspect of the play was the set design. It consisted of a few large tree trunks extending the height of the stage platform with a series of clotheslines tied between them. Many sheets and blankets hung from each clothesline. Although at first glance a simple set design, after each event occurred a character would rip a sheet down, seemingly signifying the many layers that of plot or even Pecola’s character unfurling.
Also, references placed throughout the storyline were effective in creating a play accurate to the period. In addition to talking about actresses like Shirley Temple, Pecola also read from the “Dick and Jane Reader,” a story that helped kids learn to read. And between scenes, the characters sang traditional songs and hymns that made the setting more believable.
Although “The Bluest Eye” essentially deals with the tragic story of the coming-of-age of a young African American girl, it does so in a profound and interesting way that leaves the audience enthralled in the unfolding plot.
The play runs at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater from March 28 to April 20.
Rachel Glogowski is a Senior Reporter at Youth Journalism International.