When Toni Morrison published her debut novel in 1970, “The Bluest Eye” detonated like a bomb in the American literary landscape.
Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year-old black girl in the years following The Depression, dreams of acquiring blue eyes, so others will finally find her worth looking at, perhaps even lovable. Dreams are all Pecola has: Her alcoholic father has raped her, her mother blames and beats her – possibly to keep away the belief she’s married to a monster – and the sisters in her foster family hardly know what to make of her.
Playwright Lydia Diamond, best known for “Stick Fly” (produced here by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte) paid tribute to her literary inspiration by adapting “The Bluest Eye” for the stage. On Q Productions has done this long one-act at Duke Energy Theater, but its virtues cannot be assessed in so rough and unready a production.
Diamond has dropped many characters and simplified some of the structure. She has assigned narration to almost all the characters, not just a few, and they address us directly from the levels of Tim Parati’s multi-tiered set.
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Whites appear for only one moment, turning an act of intimacy between two black characters into something tawdry. The rest of the time, the African-Americans taunt and abuse each other, turning their self-loathing into cruelty toward family and schoolmates and practicing their own kind of racism. (A high-yellow girl earns the most admiration, a dark-skinned one the most ridicule.)
Diamond makes Morrison’s main point clear: When white people continually tell blacks their lives don’t matter, their victims assimilate this attitude and apply it to each other. But the show suffers from slow pacing, inaudible narration by a crucial character and performances that mostly lack drive. (I can mention no one by name, because On Q again failed to provide programs for the audience.)
Director Kim Parati makes what I think is a crucial error: Instead of having actors flow on and off the set constantly, so one can speak as soon as another stops, she clears the stage after every vignette and waits for it to fill up again slowly. Dead spots drain the energy of the show over and over, and the sense of dread we should feel never has a chance to build.
‘The Bluest Eye’
When: Through June 11 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.
Running time: 105 minutes with no intermission.
Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.