A Los Angeles Theatre Review: ‘The Bluest Eye’

Staged adaptations of novels usually don’t end up working well as they are clunky at best and downright tedious at worst. Thankfully, the staged version of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is one of the few works that so vividly brings the novel’s words to life, thanks to the fine adaptation of Lydia R. Diamond.

It is with great pleasure that under the superb direction of Andi Chapman, the newest production at A Noise Within is an astounding work of art that serves as an absolutely vital reminder not only why theatre needs to thrive but works created and starring global majority artists need to be shown and supported.

“The Bluest Eye painfully exposes the poisonous effects of systemic racism and the heartbreak of shame, all the while retaining the distinctively rich and lyrical language of Morrison’s novel. Faced with constant ridicule and abuse, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove blames her dark skin. If only she had blue eyes… surely love would follow?”

There is no question that the play delves into very traumatic and painful subject matters and when the pain comes, they hit hard. But it is not without its humor and levity, and when those moments come, they are most certainly needed because the darker moments will most certainly break you. This should be familiar for those who have read Toni Morrison’s very first novel but for those who are unaware, the content explores Black pain experienced by systemic racism in such a profound way that it is no wonder white folks have found the material to be problematic and have banned it over the years.

Since its publication, the book has consistently landed on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books. Reasons cited have included, “sexually explicit material,” “lots of graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language,” and “an underlying socialist-communist agenda.” One complaint simply called it a “bad book.”

BANNED: The Bluest Eye — PBS

I was at first apprehensive when such a staged adaptation would perform in a predominantly white institution like A Noise Within but it gave me such a relief that during opening night, it wasn’t just all older white folks but a large mix of Black and Brown audience members who came through. While this sort of work can easily be perceived as the sort of white guilt material that PWI theatre companies love putting in their seasons for their diversity quota, it was nevertheless wonderful to see it wasn’t just white people coming to see the show. I can only hope and challenge that such theatre companies like A Noise Within continue hiring global majority artists in significant positions of crew and cast for shows that don’t necessarily involve around race and identity. But I digress.

Kacie Rogers, Akilah A. Walker, and Mildred Marie Langford in The Bluest Eye
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Akilah A. Walker heads the entire cast as the tragic Pecola with Kacie Rogers and Mildred Marie Langford as Claudia and Frieda, whose point of story is told as they comment on the events that unfold. These three actors are the center of the entire show and my goodness, they are extraordinary. Walker is absolutely heartbreaking as Pecola while Rogers and Langford effortlessly weave in and out narrating to the audience with such command, grace, and humor. They all portray young kids in their pre-teens so well that when they break into their childish antics, it provides such an enormous amount of levity that they might be some of the biggest guffaws I’ve ever heard from the audience in some time. It only makes sense, after all, with the darkness right around the corner.

Julanne Chidi Hill, Kamal Bolden, Alexandra Metz and Crystal Jackson in The Bluest Eye
Photo by Craig Schwartz

The rest of the ensemble only matches the quality of the main three with Julanne Chidi Hill as Mrs. Breedlove, Kamal Bolden as Cholly Breedlove, Crystal Jackson and Alex Morris as Claudia’s and Frieda’s Mama and Daddy, and Alexandra Metz as classmate Maureen. Not only do these actors play their respective roles mentioned but they easily transition to all the supporting characters with such commitment and craft. Morris (pictured below with Walker) was a particular standout in delivering several memorable and distinct characters. I daresay that their strength as an ensemble was so incredible that I would be outraged if they weren’t recognized for best ensemble in the Los Angeles theatre awards realm.

It does need to be mentioned that other than the chairs circling in the back with a costume wagon station at the back center, the show depends entirely on the strength of their cast as it is just a rectangular stage platform. No props whatsoever, just pure acting and imagination (with a little help from the fantastic sound design by Jeff Gardner). I was just mesmerized by how well coordinated the actors were with interacting the “space” and all the sound effects that came with it i.e., shutting windows, hitting pans, etc.

Playwright Lydia R. Diamond

I mentioned earlier how notoriously difficult it is to adapt a novel into a play and I’ll mention it again here. Though this adaptation is not exactly new as it’s been around since 2007 and have been on stage numerous times, I was at awe in how well the transition was as the book constantly shifts the point of view of the narration. The adaptation streamlines it to Rogers’ Claudia to be the omniscient narrator and while the play transitions for a bit to focus on the past with Pecola’s parents, Claudia serves as the Greek Chorus as we see her thoughts out loud or on her face. The poetry of Morrison’s words are kept wholly intact while not forgetting that some things are better shown, not said.

But it is director Andi Chapman who took such care in letting the words of Morrison and Diamond come through as she expertly coordinates the rhythm, choreography, and musicality of the piece while letting her actors shine. The staging and blocking was clean, precise, and most importantly effective in the positioning of the actors and allowing them to have at it since no props were relied on.

Special shoutout must also go to the rest of the creative team, which includes composer and musical director Maritri Garrett and choreographer Indira Tyler; scenic designer Fred Kinney; lighting designer Andrew Schmedake; costume designer Wendell C. Carmichael; wig and Makeup designer Shelia Dorn; properties designer Stephen Taylor; and dramaturg DrMiranda JohnsonHaddad. The production stage manager is Zaira Paredes-Villegas.

If you want to see theatre at its finest with all the cylinders firing, do not hesitate and go watch The Bluest Eye immediately.

Julanne Chidi Hill, Crystal Jackson, and Alexandra Metz in The Bluest Eye
Photo by Craig Schwartz

A Noise Within
 presents The Bluest Eye, a haunting and tragic portrait of a Black girl’s coming of age in the racially turbulent 1940s, adapted for the stage by Lydia R. Diamond from the novel by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Faced with constant ridicule and abuse, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove blames her dark skin. If only she had blue eyes… surely love would follow? 

• Adapted for the stage by Lydia R. Diamond from the novel by Toni Morrison
• Directed by Andi Chapman
• Starring Kamal Bolden, Julanne Chidi HillCrystal JacksonMildred Marie LangfordAlexandra MetzAlex MorrisKacie RogersAkilah A. Walker
• Presented by A Noise Within, Geoff Elliot and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, producing artistic directors

Previews Aug. 27–Sept. 1
Performances Sept. 2–Sept. 24
• Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.: Aug. 30 ONLY (preview)
• Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.: Aug. 31* (preview); Sept. 7ϯ and Sept, 21 ONLY
• Fridays at 8 p.m.: Sept. 1 (preview); Sept. 8ϯϯ; Sept. 15ϯϯ; Sept. 22ϯϯ 
• Saturdays at 2 p.m.: Sept. 9; Sept. 16; Sept. 23 (no matinee on Sept. 2)
• Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Sept. 2 (Opening Night); Sept. 9; Sept. 16; (no evening performance on Sept. 23)
• Sundays at 2 p.m.: Aug. 27 (preview); Sept. 3**; Sept. 10ϯϯ; Sept. 17; Sept. 24

*The preview on ThursdayAug. 31 will be sensory-friendly; a handout detailing when an abrupt or intense moment of lighting, sound or on-stage action will occur, and a discreetly-placed lantern will provide a visual indication of when these moments will occur.
**An INsiders Discussion Group prior to the matinee on SundaySept. 3 will discuss banned books from 12:30 p.m.–1:30 p.m. (separate admission: $25).
ϯThe performance on ThursdaySept. 7 is “Black Out Night,” an opportunity for an audience self-identifying as Black to experience the performance together. Tickets include admission to a post-show reception.
ϯϯPostperformance conversations with the artists every Friday (except the preview) and SundaySept. 10

In addition, there will be three student matinees at 10:30 a.m. on ThursdaySept. 14TuesdaySept. 19; and WednesdaySept. 20. Interested educators should email education@anoisewithin.org.

A Noise Within
3352 E Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107

• Tickets start at $29
• Student tickets start at $18
• Wednesday, Aug. 30 and Thursday, Aug. 31 (previews): Pay What You Choose starting at $5 (available online beginning the Monday prior to that performance)
• Discounts available for groups of 10 or more

Recommended for mature audiences ages 14 and up.

(626) 356-3100