Barnaby Monk 1:14 p.m., June 19
It's about time Cashae Monya got a featured role, and about time she worked with Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (recent winner of the 2012 Craig Noel Award for outstanding direction of Moxie's A Raisin in the Sun). Putting them together's a cause for celebration. And the Moxie/Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company's co-production of Lydia Diamond's drama's cause for an even greater one. This wonderful show can charm your socks off and break your heart.
Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), tells the story of young Pecola Breedlove, an African-American growing up in Lorrain, Ohio, in 1941. All the popular girls at school, and all the movie stars (and even Jane, in the schoolbook Dick and Jane) have blue eyes, blond hair, and white skin. Because she doesn't, Pecola's convinced she'll be "ugly" until she can have her eyes re-colored.
She's never known a semblance of love. As she seeks it, her life spirals downward, in one brutal turn after another. Morrison's novel takes such an unflinching look at racism, the curse of a dominant culture, and child abuse that schools and libraries across the country tried to have it banned.
The story's told mostly through the eyes of nine-year-old Claudia McTeer, who - like a Greek chorus - tries to make sense of the community's scapegoat.
For her theatrical adaptation, Diamond compresses the novel to 90 minutes. She preserves much of Morrison's eloquent dialogue, and stays true to the novel's tragic inevitability.
As Pecola, Cashae Monya spellbinds wall-to-wall. Her eyes are so astonishingly expressive, it's impossible to think that Pecola would want them blue. But Pecola only sees herself through the eyes of others. And in the end, her last name - Breedlove - drips with the cruelest of ironies.
It's unfair to call the other actors a supporting cast. Each gives an excellent performance: Lorene Chesley and Marshel Adams, as the pre-teen McTeer sisters (spot-on accurate and funny to boot); Abner Genece as Soaphead Church, a sleazy (even morally) fortune teller; and sad-eyed Warner Miller as Pecola's emotionally blasted father, Cholly; and Melissa Coleman-Reed, Chelsea Diggs-Smith, and Kimberly King in multiple roles.
Somehow Turner Sonnenberg has created a tone at once buoyant and cartoonlike, on the surface, and solemn as stone beneath.The early scenes unfold as if were watching a coming of age comedy. Part of the final scene's message: it should have been one.
The design work underscores these elements. Emily N. Smith's accurate, Depression-era costumes; George Ye's useful sounds - and his choreography of a slo-mo fight sight both silly and horrific. Brian Redfern's appealing set has a sturdy porch, behind which a thick orange, wavy line, flanked by blue ones, runs the length of the stage. At first it might be a sunlit river. By play's end, thanks to Luke Oliver's lighting, it must be flowing lava.
Lorene Chesley and Marshel Adams. Photo by Daren Scott.