Renowned author Toni Morrison’s first novel (published in 1970) is brought to life brilliantly in this adaptation by Lydia R. Diamond, directed by Andi Chapman. Morrison gave her blessing to Diamond’s vision before her death in 2019.
By Carol Edger Germain
Morrison is one of America’s most prolific, iconic, award-winning authors, the recipient of a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer Price, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and dozens of other literary honors. Prior to starting her writing career at age 39, she had already made a name for herself in the educational and literary worlds.
Spending her teen and pre-teen years in 1940’s Lorain, Ohio gave Morrison deep insight into the dynamics of growing up Black in the North, where more equality was anticipated, with reconstruction, slavery, and Jim Crow fading into the sunset, but where, in reality, systemic racism and narrow visions of beauty and worth thrived.
“Mom, Dad, Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot and Puff” (white, heterosexual, married, three children, one dog, one cat) were the ideal family all schoolchildren of that era were indoctrinated with and limited to, and blonde, blue-eyed Shirley Temple was the ideal child, deemed worthy of dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The story is told by sisters Claudia (Kacie Rogers) and Frieda (Mildred Marie Langford) as adults looking back on their childhood (casting adults as the children works beautifully in this adaptation). The third adult/child, Pecola Breedlove (Akilah A. Walker), had been placed with the family by the local government after her father tried to burn down their living space. Another down-on-his-luck adult, Soaphead Church (Alex Morris), also resides with the family. Crystal Jackson and Alex Morris (in a dual role) play the sisters’ Mama and Daddy, and Alexandra Metz is their classmate Maureen.
Pecola’s parents, Cholly Breedlove (Kamal Bolden) and Mrs. Breedlove (Julanne Chidi Hill) have done irreparable damage to Pecola, reinforcing and acquiescing to the racist and segregationist views fo the times. Cholly did the most significant damage by his violence toward, and rape of, Pecola. (The rape is not portrayed, no need, the violence and degradation in words is enough to destroy the children’s belief in, and respect for, themselves.) and Mrs. Breedlove merely reinforced Pecola’s lack of self-worth and hope, not respecting that she was a child, a victim, and her responsibility to protect.
The costumes and minimalist set are perfect for evoking the era and the situations occurring in the play. The audience can absorb and reflect on the play occurring on the stage, while inevitably letting their own experiences, knowledge, and beliefs twist through the story. The answer is simple in Pecola’s mind. She becomes convinced that all would be well if she just had blue eyes. That would trigger those around her to see her differently – worthy, valuable, with the right to live equally and with respect. She thinks she has found a magical way to make that happen, with the assistance of Soaphead Church, and she hastily determines that the pain and cruelty that must first be inflicted and endured will surely be worth it, because her world will change when the magic has fixed her flaw. The result is reinforcement of the negative power of not believing in ourselves, not claiming our worth, and not letting our minds expand to accept a new reality and self-worth.
Yes, it’s heavy, but so beautifully done, so important to remind us of the work left to be done, not the least of which is dealing with the current gurgling underflow of book banning wearing blinders, and letting a minority of shortsighted and prejudiced, but loud, voices deny access to ideas, information, and equality. The play is fantastic and stands on its own, but reading the book either before or after is recommended, and audience members who haven’t read it will likely be inspired to do so. (This book was the fourth most banned book during the recent several years.) The real treat is that it is available as an audiobook narrated by Toni Morrison herself.
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