Decades before Lee Daniels' controversial Precious stirred audiences with its depictions of abuse, neglect and incest, author Toni Morrison began her award-winning career with her controversial 1970 novel The Bluest Eye. Morrison's tale of a young girl in 1940s Ohio who loathes the color of her skin and suffers unspeakable horrors earned widespread acclaim, even as its graphic atrocities and injustices left readers wincing. Today it is used in many literature and black studies classes nationwide, despite the necessary harshness of some of its language and situations.
Amun Ra Playhouse artistic director jeff obafemi carr acknowledges that the Morrison novel packs considerable emotional weight in its original form, and he affirms that Lydia Diamond's stage adaptation hasn't diminished any of its edge or authority. If anything, he says, the cast in Amun Ra’s upcoming production of The Bluest Eye — which premieres Feb. 25 — has already felt the power of Morrison's text in rehearsals.
"I'm not directing or acting in this and it's really drained me just watching the rehearsals," carr says. "I can just imagine how much energy it would take out of you participating in it. Lydia Diamond's adaptation has been endorsed by Morrison, and while you can't put everything in the book into a stage play, there's definitely been plenty of things retained that are powerful and raw."
The Bluest Eye documents the experiences, viewpoints and feelings of young Pecola Breedlove, who truly believes that her only chance at happiness is to become a young white girl. It delves into the impact of the Great Depression on families while showing that segregation, cruelty and brutality toward black families and workers weren't confined to the South. At the same time, Morrison offers a graphic view of the psychological damage racism does across generations.
Performing the play in Amun Ra’s intimate black-box theater, carr says, only makes the source material’s outrage that much more intense.
“You're so close to the action you really feel the conflicts and what the characters are going through,” carr explains. “I think this play is the perfect vehicle to launch our season at Amun Ra because of what it says about issues of color, class, and self-esteem."
Directed by kenetha carr, carr’s wife, the play's cast includes Alicia Haymer, Joel Diggs, Jessica Townsend, Keisha Cunningham, David Fletcher, Demetria Graneberry, Karen Shakir and Eleanor Zirke.
"This is a perfect piece to discuss identity issues that we are still grappling with in the African American community today," carr says. "Lydia Diamond did an exceptional job of understanding what you can and can't do on stage in terms of drama and conflict, and has given us the ideal document to show audiences the brilliance of Morrison's vision. We have a fabulous cast and I'm really thrilled at what they're doing with this play."
It’s a challenging work, carr admits, but one he feels is vital to his company’s mission — and sadly, one that is still both resonant and relevant.
"In terms of what we want to do in Amun Ra in terms of bringing great drama to the community, it is emblematic of what we're looking for," carr says. "The Bluest Eye is just the beginning in terms of expanding and extending the vision of Amun Ra and what we want to do here in Nashville."
The Bluest Eye continues Thursdays-Sundays through Mar. 14. Presentations begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. Sunday performances will be followed by interactive talkback sessions between the cast and audience. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased either at the door by calling 1-800-838-3006.
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