Director of ‘The Bluest Eye’ speaks to themes of Black girlhood, triumph, storytelling

Photo of Dawn Monique Williams
Dawn Monique Williams/Courtesy

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In an interview with The Daily Californian, Dawn Monique Williams discussed her experience as director of Aurora Theatre Company’s newest audio drama, “The Bluest Eye,” based on the novel by Toni Morrison. Adapted by playwright Lydia R. Diamond, “The Bluest Eye” is the first project in Aurora’s history that is written, adapted and directed by Black women and composed of an entirely Black cast. 

As associate artistic director of Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, Williams was the one to suggest that Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of “The Bluest Eye” be included in the theater’s set list. Even when COVID-19 prevented the play from proceeding as planned, Aurora was able to pick the play back up — months later — as an audio drama. 

“Doing audio is already a little bit different than if you’re doing it live because I don’t have to stage a play, so there’s no choreography or blocking,” Williams said. “It means there can be a real focus on language and a real focus on nuanced acting. Like I said, from the beginning, I’ve been a language-driven director, so in many ways, it’s a gift to be able to just focus on how the text works.”

Transitioning to the content of the play and its implications, Williams explained, “The original novel was written by Toni Morrison, a Black woman, and she wrote it to communicate what Black people as a whole experience, but in particular, Black girls. She really wrote it to capture the arc of what it is to be a young Black girl developing into a young Black woman —  the pressures that one faces and the joys that one experiences.” 

In response to whether “The Bluest Eye” can teach audiences something about the intersections of race, gender and childhood, Williams connected the characters in the novel to the experiences of Black girls today.

“I certainly think (the play) can illuminate the pressures that we put on Black girls. It’s sort of contradictory messaging that Black girls and Black femme youth get about their autonomy of themselves, where they have agency and where they don’t,” she said. “We regrettably still live in a highly, highly, highly patriarchal, white supremacist culture, where still in 2021, a young Black girl might not see representations of herself in popular culture (or) in the media that are favorable.”

“The Bluest Eye” is complicated by its depiction of both Black sorrow and Black joy. Because the debut of this audio drama happens to coincide with current events surrounding racialized police violence, racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams had doubts about whether this was the right moment to introduce a play that deals heavily with Black trauma. However, the events of the summer also contributed to William’s eventual decision to proceed with the production.

 “Over the summer, as the number of Black femmes who were being murdered rose, as there seemed to still be no justice for Breonna Taylor, I said to myself, ‘No, we still need to tell this story.’ Because people are not celebrating Black women and girls, and Black women and girls deserve to be celebrated,” she said. “And so, as complicated as the story is, … I still maintain it is a story of triumph.”

This triumph originates from the growth and perseverance of Claudia, a young Black girl who narrates a significant portion of the novel. While other character’s stories are heartbreakingly tragic, Claudia’s development into a young woman illustrates the beauty of resilience and how that resilience allowed her to share other people’s stories — stories that otherwise would not be told. 

“Claudia and her sister Frieda are nurtured by love and warmth and affection, and they grow up to be people who can carry the story forward. They grow up to be sort of like griots of the culture, and I think that’s just as important as (what) I and the cast of actors and Toni Morrison and Lydia Diamond are being: cultural griots,” Williams explained. “We’re telling the story. The story isn’t always pretty, but it’s so necessary.”

The use of multiple perspectives creates important nuance in the novel, and Williams explained that Diamond’s adaptation is unique because it takes these perspectives and creates a myriad of narrators — unlike the original book — to better construct the experiences of joy and sorrow in every character, good and bad. 

Ultimately, this variation is essential to a multidimensional examination of race, gender and childhood in the audio drama.

“You get the impact of Claudia thriving; you get Claudia’s intelligence and wit and joy and keen observation,” Williams said. ”You get an understanding that being a Black girl is at times painful and at times traumatic, but also at times triumphant and filled with joy and laughter and song and sweet treats, and that it’s not an either-or, but that it’s actually a full, rich, complicated, nuanced life.”

Nathalie Grogan covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].