Content warning: sexual violence
“The Bluest Eye,” commissioned by Aurora Theatre Company, is an audio drama adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel of the same name. Adapted for the stage by Lydia R. Diamond and directed by Dawn Monique Williams, “The Bluest Eye” is a unique and spellbinding take on the novel’s themes of Black girlhood, family and trauma.
Unlike the novel, the audio drama has a multitude of narrators who each speak to their own experiences and the experiences of others. This artistic choice, made by Diamond, sets the audio drama apart from other adaptations, as it delivers a variety of complex perspectives and captivating voices. In an interview with the Daily Californian, Williams explained the significance of this narrative approach as a way of giving depth to the plot and to characters.
Overall, the audio drama includes much of the novel’s original language, pacing, events and symbolism. Due to its hour and 50 minute runtime, however, Diamond’s adaption expertly compresses, reinvents and expands the novel to create a beautifully fresh storytelling experience.
The beginning of the audio drama introduces Claudia (Jeunée Simon) and Frida (Sam Jackson) as both narrators and subjects in the story. Unlike the novel, they bicker as they narrate — in true sisterly fashion — adding a lightheartedness to the overall storytelling.
Claudia and Frida are set in contrast to Pecola (Jasmine Milan Williams), as the drama constantly compares the joys of friendship, love and family to the horrors of sexual violence, racism and socially conditioned self-hatred. Within the first few minutes, Claudia has explained that in 1941, “there were no marigolds,” because Pecola was having her father’s baby. She expands, “why is difficult to handle, so one must take refuge in how.”
The exceptional abilities of this drama’s cast are what truly bring “The Bluest Eye” to life. Each cast member plays multiple roles, bringing such unique energy to their characters that it is hard to believe some are voiced by the same person. Impressively, Michael Asberry plays the three father figures of the novel — Cholly, Daddy and Soaphead — while distinctly distinguishing each character from the others through his tone of voice, inflections and pacing. Using only their voices, each actor brings such depth and emotion to the script that the lack of visual aesthetics is never felt; the drama becomes a beautiful piece of art through its audio form, rather than being limited by it.
The play uses particular narrative techniques and moments to highlight the important themes of the book itself. When Pecola is praying to be made invisible, her voice is mixed with her mother’s, Mrs. Breedlove (Cathleen Riddley), who remembers how racist doctors treated her without any compassion when she gave birth to Pecola. The doctors dismissed her pain — and her humanity — rendering her invisible. This generational trauma is then traced to Pecola, who prays first to disappear, then to be made beautiful enough to be seen. She prays for “blue eyes, like Shirley Temple.”
Pecola’s desire to be considered beautiful, similar to her mother’s desire, is born of mistreatment and trauma. Her soliloquies to herself are some of the most heartbreaking, but are so important to recognize and remember. She explains to the audience, “I want them blue so maybe people won’t turn away from me when I walk down the street… I want them blue so my mamma will love me… I want them blue so people don’t do ugly things in front of me and I stop being invisible.”
Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, “The Bluest Eye” is also full of beautiful, relatable and touching moments of care, love and friendship. Claudia and Frida grow up to tell this story and to remember Pecola. They remember how badly they wanted Pecola’s baby to live, because it seemed like no one else did.
“The Bluest Eye” is a story of trauma and abuse, but also of perseverance and love. The drama’s exquisite use of sound affects, the cast’s exceptional audio abilities, the script’s beautiful language and delectable imagery — all of this renders “The Bluest Eye” a delightful and deeply impactful audio experience.