By Duojiao Chang
Boston University News Service
The Huntington Theatre Company brings Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye”, to the stage after a two-year delay due to the pandemic. Debuting over 50 years ago, Morrison’s novel tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young Black girl growing up in the fallout of the Great Depression.
The Huntington Theatre Company’s production, directed by Awoye Timpo, premiered on Jan. 28 and will run through March 26 at the Calderwood Pavilion.
“I think one of the gorgeous things about the novel that Lydia captures so beautifully is it’s about the power of storytelling,” said Timpo in a “Meet the Artists” video produced by the Huntington Theatre Company.
“Our director, Awoye, was very, very clear that while we have a knowledge of the book, we’re kind of going to put it to the side,” said Ramona Lisa Alexander who plays “Mama” in the cast.
Alexander, who grew up in the Roxbury/Dorchester area, said in a phone interview that she first read “The Bluest Eye” in high school and fell in love with it.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond adapted the narrative for the stage in 2007, showing the trials of a Black family living in Lorain, Ohio in 1941, dealing with racism and segregation.
During shows, the audience sits in a circle surrounding the stage, in a setup “inspired by the storytelling traditions of Black rituals” according to the production’s website.
When they are not performing in a scene, the actors sit aside the stage, watch closely, and react as everyone is part of the story. By coming off the stage and sitting with the audience in the front rows, the actors foster intimacy and use the space for “provocation, remembrance, and healing.”
“Coming together in a circle to tell a story is essential to our humanity,” Temple said.
Both Morrison’s novel and Timpo’s play follow the seasons, but the narrative doesn’t meet people’s expectations of seasons. The stage, a tree stump with rings and cracks, sits below an abstract tree branch. All the actors walk the stage barefoot to connect the story to nature with their feet planted on earth and their bodies reaching to the sky.
It’s a unique experience for Alexander, who played in classical dramas from different cultures and periods, such as Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” She appreciates unfamiliar storytelling techniques that connect her to the environment, actors and audiences.
“The way that [Timpo] has framed that for us and set that up for us that we’re constantly in connection with each other, we’re constantly in communication with each other, whether it’s verbally or non verbally. We’re constantly in connection with the earth and sky,” said Alexander.
As light moves around the intimate circle, the play flashbacks to the younger years of Pecola’s father, portrayed by Greg Alverez Reid, and his chilling experience of being harassed and humiliated by white men. The Huntington provided the cast with necessary mental health resources in order to perform scenes that depict rape and domestic violence.
Spiritual songs sung by all eight cast members add another layer to the story. A few times Claudia, played by Brittany-Laurelle, one of the narrators, leads the group through dark moments with music. Inspired by West African griots, who incorporated music into their oral histories, the characters sing songs to communicate, question, heal and remember.
The Huntington held a soft opening of the production from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1, in which the team collected feedback from the audience and made minor adjustments. The show officially started on Feb. 2.
Alexander hopes the play can spark dialogue around themes of racism, gender and childcare. She thinks the story is also about hope — “the light in the midst of darkness.”
“I think the play crosses a lot of aspects, not just race, but also class, gender, and beauty,” said theatergoer Barbara Arboleda, after watching the Feb. 4 performance. “It gives us a lot to think and process.”