It begins with a voice, a sweet soprano humming in the darkness. Then a girl begins to read from a children's primer: "Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty." Soon the audience hears about little Jane and her happy, laughing mother, her red dress, her big, strong father and her dog. The girl's reading grows louder. More voices join in, shouting about the happy family and the big white house. A simple melody slips into indomitable cacophony.
Pain, violence and memory collide in a production of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," adapted by Lydia Diamond and directed by Jarrett Key '13. Thoughtfully staged and earnestly delivered, the play stares unflinchingly into the trauma of the internalization of ugliness and the demonization of blackness in American culture.
In the intimacy of the thrust stage, the audience watches Pecola Breedlove (Jenna Spencer '14), a young girl from an unloving and chaotic family, endure psychological and sexual abuse while growing up in post-Depression Ohio. Each night at her bedside, she prays for blonde hair and blue eyes while her parents beat each other relentlessly. Her aspiration for the white aesthetic, broadcast by giggling baby dolls and Shirley Temple, is undermined by the ugliness that surrounds her.
The saga of the Breedlove family - think Langston Hughes via Wagner - is narrated by Pecola's neighborhood playmates, Claudia MacTeer (Becky Bass '13) and her sister Frieda (Shadura Lee '16). Bass is at home playing Claudia, modulating seamlessly between the innocent action of her youth and the removed narrator, remembering and retelling years later.
The painful narrative that Morrison lyrically built in her first novel is faithfully translated to the stage in Key's production. Deploying music, rhythm and movement, he deconstructs and distorts the idealized image of Mother-Father-Dick-and-Jane, portraying white middle class values as a perverted social construct. The audience is reminded that reality can be full of anguish.
"For me, the big thing that Toni Morrison does is explore trauma," Key said. "How does a little girl deal with trauma? How does that trauma affect her? How does that trauma lead to her slipping into madness?"
A sparse set, almost empty but for a few intersecting wooden platforms and some pieces of multipurpose furniture, makes for an intimate affair. The action is conceived as panorama, with actors wandering through the aisles and delivering lines among the audience. Imaginative lighting design by RISD senior Jonathan Key, Jarrett's brother, helps contextualize each scene, but the audience mostly relies on the actors themselves to inhabit imagined times and places.
The characters occupy a melodic landscape. A sequence of African-American spirituals resurfaces periodically throughout the production, shifting meaning in context. "I really was interested in trying to create the world of the 1930s and '40s and using gospel music that these characters would have actually known and would have loved," Key said.
The challenge of representing domestic violence and sexual abuse on stage was approached sensitively. "We don't want to see people fighting, and we don't want to see people getting punched. That's boring," said Alexx Temena '15, assistant director and choreographer. In one memorable sequence, a couple's fighting becomes an aggressive pseudo-ballet through the transfer of energy from one body to another. The actors make violence almost beautiful to watch.
"The movement for me becomes a conversation about how does trauma affect the body and how does that resonate in the body," Key said. "How do we make sure that each person has their own gestural vocabulary?"
Spencer is a devastating Pecola, and every line she delivers rings with vulnerability and heartache. With small, thoughtful details, she fleshes out the role - her eyes are wide with muted panic, she converses uneasily and occasionally adjusts her cardigan self-consciously.
Afia Kwakwa '14 delivers a standout performance as Mama. She has a supporting role, but Kwakwa's playful sense of movement and commanding contralto demand viewers' attention. Chastising her girls, she becomes a plucky reverend, smacking her lips and rolling her eyes while she preaches to some imaginary congregation. She dances when she walks, bending her arms and hips to strike angular poses - an irreverent contrapposto.
Ty Lowell '13 lends the difficult part of Cholly Breedlove a surprising dose of humanity along with the monstrosity we expect. It's a challenge not unlike that which Vladimir Nabokov set himself in "Lolita," to seduce the audience into sympathizing with, maybe even understanding, a pedophile. In some ways, Lowell's performance is more difficult than Nabokov's, because Cholly not only commits an unspeakable crime, but is also a drunk with meager verbal capacities.
Reimagined for the stage, Morrison's tale reacquaints us with dark, painful pasts, exposing with brutal honesty the ugly realities of racial memory. This is a story that demands to be told.
"The Bluest Eye" runs Nov. 29 through Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. in Leeds Theatre.