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THEATER REVIEW: Moxie/Mo'olelo's “The Bluest Eye”

In the late ’60s, a game called Blue Eyes Brown was devised for a conference on racism. Attendees (who were not informed of the game beforehand) were treated differently depending on their eye color: those with brown eyes got better food, housing, service and setups for their presentations than those with blue eyes.

When the “subjects” realized the rules of the experiment, unrest flared into open revolt. In other words, it was successful in showing what discrimination feels like.

Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove (Cashae Monya) doesn’t need a game to tell her what not belonging feels like. Her skin is dark brown and she is ignored, mocked, even hated. Pecola lives in Ohio in 1941, surrounded by people who don’t prize her looks, her brains or anything else about her.

Pecola longs to be loved, and reads the “Dick and Jane” books, wondering why her black family can’t be like that white one. She loves Shirley Temple, especially when she dances with Bojangles, because “she’s pretty and talented and people love her.” Very much aware that people refer to her whole family as “ugly,” she surmises that if she just had blue eyes, her life would be fine.

When a new, much lighter girl named Maureen Peel (Chelsea Diggs-Smith) shows up in school, Pecola has someone else to envy.

“The Bluest Eye” is the story of one year in Pecola’s difficult life. MOXIE Theatre and Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company offer a stunning co-production of Lydia Diamond’s fine adaptation of Toni Morrison’s first novel through March 3 in MOXIE’s space.

Pecola’s mother Pauline (whom she calls “Mrs. Breedlove”) has a permanent limp and a self-image to match; though seldom violent, she (Melissa Coleman-Reed) is emotionally abusive. Thwarted dreams have led her to invest her emotional energy in her job as maid in a white household.

Pecola’s father Cholly (Warner Miller), a physically abusive alcoholic unable to support his family, seems to spend his time in or on the way to the local bar. He has his own sad history, and visits his own problems on his daughter one night when he comes home drunk to rape and impregnate her.

Pecola is lucky to find two friends in vivacious Claudia (Lorene Chesley) and old-beyond-her-years Frieda Mac Teer (Marshel Adams), and when Cholly (in a drunken stupor) burns down their living quarters, Pecola moves in with the Mac Teers.

Observing the voluble but obviously loving Mac Teer family (headed by Kimberly King as the stern but kind Mama) only serves to emphasize what Pecola lacks in her own family. One day, when it’s clear her prayers won’t be answered and her existence gets to be too much, Pecola visits local psychic reader/spiritual adviser/pedophile Soaphead Church (Abner Genece) to plead for blue eyes.

Diamond splits the narration of this story, but most of the heavy lifting is done by nine-year-old Claudia, who tells us in the beginning that Pecola is pregnant by her father and that she wants to relate not the why (which she doesn’t understand) but the how of it.

Of course, the larger point of the whole play is the why of racism and the damage it does, and there’s nothing better to express it than Morrison’s singing prose, much of which Diamond has wisely put into the script intact.

Sonnenberg directs this tricky production (with its part-narration, part-play structure) with a sure hand, and has a top-notch cast to make the script into a riveting evening of theater.

Monya’s Pecola is charming, innocent and hopeful, and Monya even made me buy her as 11 years old. Now that’s acting.

Likewise, Adams and Chesley are convincing as preteens: Adams the “worldly” Frieda who explains menstruation to the mystified and terrified Pecola; Chesley the feisty Claudia who wants to tear her white doll apart in an attempt to find out why pink skin and blue eyes are thought so beautiful.

Coleman-Reed’s Mrs. Breedlove exudes the exhaustion of a life that hasn’t worked out; Miller’s Cholly almost seems sad rather than reprehensible.

Genece plays both the fast-talking Soaphead and kindly Daddy Mac Teer expertly. King is totally convincing as Mama Mac Teer, and Diggs-Smith is suitably annoying as the light-skinned Maureen.

MOXIE Theatre, with its emphasis on female playwrights and female characters, is a perfect partner for Mo’olelo (with its mission to represent underserved communities), and if “The Bluest Eye” is a sample, I hope they collaborate again soon.

The details

“The Bluest Eye” plays through March 3 at MOXIE Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. Suite N.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm; high school matinees Wednesday at 10 am.

Tickets: (858) 598-7620 or (858) 342-7395; HERE or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.