Lifting Language

Aurora Theatre Company adapt’s Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ for the stage

The vivid polyrhythms and dynamic cadences of Toni Morrison’s language in The Bluest Eye, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s first novel adapted for stage by playwright Lydia R. Diamond, are like jackhammers in the pocket of Director Dawn Monique Williams.

Presenting the audio play online April 9 through May 21, the Aurora’s associate artistic director says in an interview, “We’re lifting the language up because it’s the primary tool we have. The physicality in live theater does so much to embody character, but listeners will still experience charisma. This group of actors are remarkable.” Williams says the script, written by a Black author, directed by a Black director, spoken by Black actors and told in vernacular with dramatic imagination rooted in Morrison’s lived experiences, may well serve as a tool for revealing—and ultimately ending—the legacies of internalized anti-Black racism.

The Aurora cast, due to Covid-19 and Actor’s Equity protocols, rehearsed their roles separately at home, then came together on Zoom for a two-week rehearsal period. Instead of a tech week in the theater’s intimate space on Addison Street in Berkeley, actors were individually recorded—including creating their own foley sound effects such as sneezing, coughing, crying, kissing, shuffling footsteps, door slams and more. During an engineering phase, Williams layered in additional effects, working closely with Music and Sound Designer Elton Bradman and Audio Engineer Angela Don.

The Bluest Eye tells a story of insidious racism. Internalized in the life and perspectives of Pecola Breedlove, the young Black girl becomes obsessed with Shirley Temple and filled with a desire—to have blue eyes—that clouds her self-perception. Set in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, and spanning one year in time, the novel positions Pecola’s friend Claudia and an omniscient voice as the primary narrators. Williams says Claudia in Diamond’s adaption is obviously still present, but the narration is led by Frieda, a third friend. Frieda frames the action and guides the audience through rich, complex scenes as the young girls grapple with and solve problems relating to love, sisterhood, shame, abuse, domestic violence and systemic social, cultural and institutional racism.

“There was a moment where we thought we could at least come together and record it in the theater, but that wasn’t possible with the county and the Actors Equity union restrictions,” Williams says. “The union has even stricter protocols in place than the county: HVAC protocols and 12-foot social distancing, transportation services like Uber and Lyft aren’t acceptable to use, required testing and other protections that are beyond our control or are cost issues.”

Although the audio drama strips away the non-verbal physicality and micro-expressions of live theater, Williams compliments the casts’ overall vocal range and modulatory finesse. The warm tones of Jeunée Simon’s delivery as Claudia—playing the character as a nine-year-old girl and later, as a woman—are nuanced and tinged with upper-register tones, subtle hesitations and intentional phrasing to present a child’s voice. And Jasmine Milan Williams (Pecola/Maureen) portrays the young Black girl’s tortured soul without “just moping.” Playing against that character’s dire circumstances, the actor expresses genuine delight and wonder when speaking of Temple, the Hollywood child actress she admires for her blue eyes. “At the end of the play, she has to talk to her quote/unquote younger self,” Williams says. “Without the physical markers or lighting to trick the audience into knowing it’s two Pecola’s, it’s all up to Jasmine’s voice. She did so much thoughtful work to make that happen.”

Williams, allowing her thoughts to venture beyond the production, says the damaging forces of internalized racism that prevailed in 1970 when Morrison wrote the novel continue to blow at gale force. Asked if the power of #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movements will at last bring real, permanent change, she says, “I’m not so old that I should sound wise, but I pick up on the adage, ‘change comes slow or not at all.’ This feels like a moment of reckoning, but it would be a disservice to my elders who’ve been in this fight for generations, to say this is the time. I hope we can move the wheel forward in this moment, but no, I fear we’re not going to move forward. People are being shot in Atlanta, and we have to debate if it’s racist or not? White male, capitalistic culture is woven into our society. Until we can jackhammer the foundation and rebuild, we are not going to get out of this reality. It’s going to take time. So here we are … again.”

Truly? Is American theater in absolutely the same place as 50, 100 or even 500 years ago? Will artistic institutions, the media and the general public remain in the same cycle of pain, revelation, reprisals, promised reckoning and then tragic cover-ups and resistance to change? Williams says everyone is accountable for the answers. “We made a list of commitments last June at the Aurora, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the We See You White American Theater document. We now present at least 50% BIPOC playwrights. We’ve done six shows annually, and historically, one of the six would be by a playwright who was a person of color, usually Black but sometimes another person of color. We jumped to three, so ‘Yay!’ for us, but there’s still work for theaters to do in a world in which BIPOC people are the majority of the overall population.”

Williams says if the Aurora doesn’t live up to its intended goals to present more BIPOC voices and eliminate not just obvious, but micro-racist transgressions, they expect to be called out by audiences. “I think that’s necessary,” she says. “If we slide, we have to deal with the consequences. I want us to be accountable. I won’t attend a theater that doesn’t live up to its commitment, so why should anyone else?”

The media and Black theater writers who are people of color—along with white or non-Black POC writers who may or may not educate themselves and review Black American theater from informed, transparent perspectives—play a crucial role, she says. “Bad actors” in the media are beginning to experience radio silence, she suggests. “What I can say is that working on the Bluest Eye, some of the actors didn’t want to give interviews to certain outlets. There were a myriad of experiences that led to members of the cast who had mistrust in how they’re been written about before.”

As a Black woman, Williams is mindful—and emphasizes during the interview—that thinking simplistically about racial identity might cause people to assume she speaks for every Black woman. “That’s not accurate,” she says. “Which also means I don’t know everything about a person who uses a wheelchair. And how do sexism and ableism happen in the digital space? How can our audiences become better seat neighbors to each other? How can spaces be more accessible for people with physical disabilities? We have to be open to learning how to make the theater accessible and welcoming to everybody.”

If learning brings real change, maybe Williams won’t need that jackhammer after all. Maybe the rhythm of Morrison’s words and the pulse of a radio play will deliver an unforgettable shaking that causes racist structures to tumble and allows new ones to be built. Therein is the hope in art: If only it is truly and irrevocably heard and internalized and remembered, a new, better world for all of us is made possible.

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