Aurora Theatre’s audio play is a powerful adaptation of Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’

Set in 1940 in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, the story revolves around Pecola Breedlove, a lonely 11-year-old-Black girl who is shamed by what she is told is her ugliness.

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre is now presenting the vivid and vital audio-drama version of The Bluest Eye, written by Nobel and Pulitzer award-winner Toni Morrison (1931–2019). Playwright Lydia R. Diamond’s faithful adaptation of Morrison’s first novel retains all of its power and pathos in this audio play, as well as a good deal of its lyrical flavor.

Set in 1940 in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, the story revolves around Pecola Breedlove (Jasmine Milan Williams, Bull in a China Shop), a heartsick, lonely, and troubled 11-year-old Black girl who is shamed by what she is told is her ugliness. And she has constant reminders of her lack of worth. Neighbors taunt her; the local store owner will not look at her.

Not conscious of the oppressive racism to which she and her family are subjected, Pecola’s sole wish is to have blue eyes like Shirley Temple and the blond-haired Jane of the “Dick and Jane” schoolbooks. With blue eyes, she would be “seen,” if not loved. She believes that her life would be entirely transformed.

The Bluest Eye uses a combination of narration, dialogue, and flashbacks to explore the sociological circumstances that shaped Pecola and the Breedlove family. For example, the youthful experiences in the South of her father, Cholly (Michael J. Asberry (Exit Strategy, Satellites), and long-suffering mother, Polly (Cathleen Riddley), are explored. Cholly, abandoned by his parents, was raised by his great aunt, whose early death left him rootless. He was deeply humiliated by two white men, who found him having sex and forced him to continue while they watched. Pecola’s mother, Polly, works for a white family in a beautifully clean home that only makes her more humiliated by her own.

At first, Pecola temporarily lives with the MacTeer family after her house has been burned down by her alcoholic and sexually abusive father. Pecola’s only friends, nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer (Jeunée Simon) and her 10-year-old sister Frieda (Sam Jackson, Exit Strategy), narrate sections of this blunt, sometimes painful, but also poetic, play.

When Pecola moves back in with her belligerent parents, her emotional state deteriorates further. She is raped and becomes pregnant, and finally sinks into madness.

When asked why Aurora is creating audio rather than Zoom visual productions, Josh Costello, Aurora Theatre’s artistic director, said, “… Aurora’s expertise is in presenting nuanced language-based drama rather than video.” And it does make sense to use audio during the COVID-19 lockdown in this world of podcasts and audiobooks. Listening rather than viewing allows one’s imagination to take wing, and eliminates the artificiality of Zoom.

More straightforward books and plays translate more readily into audio. And Lydia R. Diamond’s adaptation of Morrison’s 1970 novel is not among the easiest. What makes Morrison’s novel so creatively unique — its changes of narrator, viewpoint, time, and perspective — make it problematic to follow at times as an audio drama. It’s not because of the acting, which is uniformly excellent. Each actor plays several roles. And it’s not Dawn Monique Williams’ able direction. The sticking point is the audience’s ability to follow the narrative’s switching gears and the actors’ related voices.

There is much to admire about The Bluest Eye and Toni Morrison’s monumental perception and talent in portraying the complicated history and framework of Black lives in America.

The Bluest Eye is one hour and 30 minutes long with two five-minute intermissions. Tickets for The Bluest Eye are free through Aurora’s new membership program and are also for individual purchase for $25, through May 21​. Patrons have 24 hours to listen to the play after purchasing a ticket. For information and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre Company box office.

Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and art critic since 2012.