Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye' is a heartbreaking tale of internalized racism

Dan Norman Photography

Dan Norman Photography

Intimate dramas can be challenging to stage on the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust Stage. But in the case of The Bluest Eye, it feels like no stage in the world is big enough to contain the vast pain and longing of Pecola Breedlove, a young African-American girl living in small-town Ohio in 1940.

The Bluest Eye

Guthrie Theater

She’s played by Brittany Bellizeare in an extraordinary balancing act that captures the complexities of Pecola’s life. She’s intelligent but innocent, vulnerable but guarded, and hugely appealing yet widely ignored.

Lydia R. Diamond’s 2005 play is an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut novel. While not as structurally complex as her later work, it’s no less moving or less subtly observed. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s Guthrie production is a remarkable feat of storytelling, gripping the audience in a steadily widening view of the personal and social circumstances that have left Pecola brutalized.

Like the novel, the play tells Pecola’s story largely from the perspective of her foster sister Claudia (Carla Duren). She and other characters narrate the play in Morrison’s precisely crafted prose, illuminating the savagery of the racism and classism that leaves Pecola’s family stigmatized both for being black and for being poor, plagued by addiction and abuse. The black characters onstage call the Breedloves “ugly” and “nasty,” leaving us to just imagine what the largely unseen whites must call them.

Claudia and her sister Frieda (Deonna Bouye) are fond of Pecola, who comes to stay with them after her alcoholic father Cholly (J. Bernard Calloway) tries to burn his own family’s house down. Through the girls’ eyes we come to love the gentle Pecola, and to see how the community’s lack of faith in the Breedloves compounds the family’s self-hatred. The title refers to Pecola’s wish for blue eyes, eyes that people would want to look into instead of away from.

We learn the backstory of Pecola’s mother (Stephanie Berry) and father in flashbacks; Calloway and Berry show us how the hopes and dreams slide right off their characters’ faces as Cholly, told he’s worthless, proceeds to destroy the two sources of joy in his life. The indignant Claudia strains to break the pathological cycle, both by befriending Pecola and by destroying the blond baby doll she’s told to adore. In an eerie sequence that builds to a stunning illustration of institutionalized racism, a white girl is portrayed as a life-size baby doll.

Blain-Cruz uses the Guthrie’s substantial technical resources to amplify these performances and expertly conduct the audience’s attention, adding punch and poignancy to every gut-wrenching vignette. Scenic designer Matt Saunders covers the stage in fragmenting pavement that continues up the back wall, dandelions straining to grow through the cracks; the stage is surrounded by grassland that the characters often wander into and through. Yi Zhao’s lighting design often isolates Pecola and other characters in blinding spotlights, as though straining to help them realize their fervent wish to be seen.

The Bluest Eye makes for an essential counterpoint on the same stage where To Kill a Mockingbird — a story with a similar setting, but told from a white point of view — played in 2015. Many readers were shocked when that summer’s publication of Go Set a Watchman revealed that Harper Lee had a less sympathetic vision of Atticus, as a man who harbored racial enmity despite the salutary actions portrayed in Mockingbird. Claudia, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.