I never thought of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye as being funny. Fierce, yes. Emotional, certainly. But it's hardly the stuff of broad comedy. After all, the novel tells the story of an impoverished 11-year-old black girl's journey from self-loathing to madness via rape, pregnancy, and infant mortality. Morrison's tale includes shockingly grotesque scenes such as when a prank-loving little boy twirls a cat like a lasso around his head before pitching it against a wall to its death. Taking, as Morrison puts it in the afterword to the Penguin edition, "the demonization of an entire race" as its theme, The Bluest Eye dramatizes through beautiful prose the effects of denigrating a people to a state of ugliness. It's basically the kind of book that makes you sweat and want to claw off your skin. What's funny about that?
So it was strange to find myself laughing out loud through much of Lydia Diamond's stage adaptation of Morrison's apocalyptic 1970 narrative about a little black girl whose biggest wish in the world is to obtain a pair of blue eyes. Director Walter Dallas' wildly physical, slapstick-comedy-infused production at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre plays Diamond's more low-key text for as much humor as it can. Though Dallas' approach is captivating in its ability to connect with the audience, something of the integrity of Morrison's vision is lost in the process.
The opening moments of the production don't prepare us remotely for what is to follow. As we stare at a completely bare stage swathed in moody blue light, Nina Simone's doleful rendition of "Little Girl Blue" plays over the sound system. The song goes on for an uncomfortably long time, to the point where we feel as if we're gazing at an unblinking blue eye. Then, just as we're expecting this feeling of emptiness to carry over into the first scene, the lights come up and a funhouse aesthetic kicks in. For the next couple of hours, we watch as actors cartwheel about the stage, throw cartoon punches into empty space, fall flat on their backs as though they've slipped on imaginary banana skins, and freeze in comical poses as if caught — like clichéd deer — in the headlights.
On some occasions, the agile ensemble cast's humorous antics are bracing. Their pratfalls grab our attention, fuel the production with vivacious energy, and keep Morrison's story from depressing us entirely. The fistfights between the parents of the novel's blue-eye-desiring protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, are one example. Mr. and Mrs. Breedlove (played by Kieleil Deleon and Tamiyka White) go at each other like a couple of championship wrestlers, but without physically touching. The comedy lies in the clever contrast between the frenzied aggression of the brawls and the surreal manner in which they are executed. The scene in which Mrs. Breedlove describes losing a tooth is equally funny. But this time, the humor stems from the bathos of watching White's Mrs. Breedlove, full of excitement and expectation, primp herself for a trip to see Clark Gable and Jean Harlow at the movies, only to lose a tooth on a bit of hard candy once she gets there. "I fixed my hair up like I'd seen hers on a magazine. A part on the side, with one little curl on the forehead," she reminisces ecstatically of her attempt to look like the Hollywood siren. Her face moves from being a picture of pure pleasure to a display of dismay. It's hard to decide what's more bizarre: White's clowning or Morrison's image of an impoverished black charwoman pretending to be a fabulously rich, white movie star.
More often, though, the slapstick threatens to replace the novel's core tragedy with broad comedy. The humor of the fight scenes between the Breedloves captures the dynamic of the couple's fractious relationship. But the over-the-top Tom-and-Jerry-like spat between Maureen Peal (a popular and relatively wealthy, though vindictive, black girl played by Natasha E. Noel) and Pecola's two sidekicks, Claudia and Frieda (Carla Punch and Nicole Harley), goes too far. The actors shriek hysterically, run around in circles, and windmill their arms as though they're swimming a hyperactive crawl. The scene should illustrate the subtle grades of racial tension between children of the same race; rather, it's simply amusing. Meanwhile, in one of the most upsetting parts of Morrison's novel, Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda accidentally knock over a freshly baked pie during a visit to Mrs. Breedlove's workplace — the well-appointed home of a rich white family across town. Instead of comforting her daughter, Mrs. Breedlove fusses over her employer's little girl, Polly, before unceremoniously booting Pecola and her cohorts out of the house. In Diamond's adaptation, the actor playing Maureen personifies Polly by coming onstage holding a life-size doll in front of her. The addition of the dummy ought to be sinister — at least, it reads that way in the script. But as re-created in Dallas' production, the scene is grotesquely funny. While entertaining, it detracts from Mrs. Breedlove's damning rejection of her daughter.
The production isn't all comedy. There are scattered shadows, which go some way toward readdressing the balance between light and dark. Much of the production's calibrating force springs from Shanique S. Scott's devastating performance as Pecola, which perfectly encapsulates the extremes in Morrison's novel: the beautiful and the ugly, the black and the white. Dressed in a shapeless white dress with a matching ribbon perched atop her head, Scott's Pecola seems completely ill at ease in her dark skin. With her chin lowered to her chest and her shoulders hunched so that it looks as if she has no neck, she resembles a wild animal, a creature from the depths. Caliban, the snarling slave in Shakespeare's Tempest. might be played this way. Yet there's a fragile loveliness to the character as she tiptoes shyly about the stage, clutching a big red school primer to her chest as if her life depended upon its protection. Scott offers us a glimpse into the dark heart of Morrison's work.
Humor can be a powerful tool for conveying serious content in the theater. Rather than communicating didactic messages about human suffering or stupidity, plays by the greatest dramatists often get their point across by making us laugh. If plays like George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House and Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman punch us in the gut, it's not just because they're bleak, but also because they're viciously funny. But getting the balance right is a challenge. With too much seriousness, a play becomes preachy. Go too far in the other direction, and it loses its aim.
Despite Diamond's obvious connection with her source material through the direct use of many lines from Morrison's book, Scott's bittersweet performance, and the gaping hole of the empty set, the comedic elements prevail over the tragic in this production of The Bluest Eye. It shouldn't be so easy to forget that Morrison's novel has the power to make people cry.