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It’s a nice notion to believe that childhood is a sacred, protected time, but such a blessing is not true perpetually or distributed equally. It’s something to hope for, something deserved, but it usually doesn’t happen or doesn’t last.

The Bluest Eye, an adaptation of Toni Morrison‘s novel by playwright Lydia R. Diamond at Synchronicity Theatre through October 17, explores this dark theme. It also shows us that the people of the world teach cruelty to children early through a thousand little messages about who is considered beautiful, favored and lucky.

Pecola Breedlove, the protagonist of the drama, played by Niara Simone Robinson, knows the world finds her ugly by the time she is 11. Pecola is Black and poor, dark-skinned with brown eyes. Her household is abusive. She is neglected, unwanted and lonely.

Niara Simone Robinson, a recent New York University graduate, makes a powerful Atlanta debut, bringing heartbreaking vulnerability to a character much younger than the actress.

She believes in her ugliness because of how her community in 1940s Lorain, Ohio, ignores her. Shopkeepers won’t look upon her. Pecola studies Dick and Jane books for early readers, identifying how the white, blue-eyed Jane is adored within the stories, surrounded by adoring parents and friends who always want to play with her.

Pecola prays to God for blue eyes in the hope that the world will see her, that someone will love her.

The play — as with the book before it — lets us know in the opening moments that Pecola’s father Cholly (Dai’Sean L. Garrett) will rape and impregnate her before its end.

This material would be heavy and unbearable, except that the play, directed by Ibi Owolabi, captures the same voice and wit in its narration as the novel.

The story of The Bluest Eye is primarily told by Claudia and Frieda, played by Brittany Deneen Hines and Kerri Garrett, two feisty sisters around Pecola’s age who don’t completely grasp why the bleak circumstances are unfolding. Claudia and Frieda’s outfits change with the season, giving the audience a point of reference in a story that jumps back and forth in time. The sisters’ family situation is more stable and caring than Pecola’s, though their mother, played by Tanya Freeman, is also very fussy, which provides the play with some lightness and humor.

Hines is a scene stealer. When Claudia receives a blond, white baby doll as a gift, she terrorizes and destroys it with zeal, for she hates its perceived “beauty.” The character is impulsive, quick to anger, and she has her reasons for it, though adult characters don’t often see the logic in her thinking. Her mother views her as ungrateful for destroying the doll. Yet, because Claudia has the audience’s ear, her little-girl reasoning provides a lot of humor.

Director Owolabi makes a lot of assured, bold choices in how The Bluest Eye is presented. One of the smaller touches that fleshes out the setting is when, during scene transitions, the actors adjust and remove set pieces and props themselves while remaining in character. Thus, if the central platform onstage transitions from a bed to a porch for the next scene, Claudia and Frieda sulk while moving it, and their parents point out how the work should be done.

A bolder touch from the director is a scene of shocking domestic violence between Pecola’s parents that is brazenly played for laughs, even though the content of the scene is horrific. When Mrs. Breedlove (Dionna D. Davis) and Cholly battle each other in their kitchen, the sisters see the scene (designed by fight director Kristin Storla) as a hilarious dance. There are changes in lighting, and a symphony suddenly swells on the soundtrack. Davis and Garrett engage in slow-motion lifts and tangles, clobbering each other with weapons.

The irony of this “ballet” versus what the scene contains works very well, daring the audience to chuckle at a scene where a crazed drunk beats a disabled woman.

Dionna D. Davis and Dai’Sean L. Garrett play Pecola’s parents in “The Bluest Eye,” locked in a violent relationship that scars their daughter.

Mrs. Breedlove is a cleaning woman with a bum foot and a missing tooth. At one point, Davis delivers a heartbreaking monologue about how she used to go to the movies and imagine what it would be like to look like Jean Harlow. While the film plays behind the actress, she mimics biting into a piece of candy, losing her tooth. Then, she recounts how her husband mocked her appearance after the episode, so now she avoids the cinema.

The world is not kind to the Breedloves, conditioning them to despise their Blackness. Pecola bears the burden of generational self-hate. When the audience is shown Cholly’s backstory, which does not excuse his behavior toward his wife and daughter but puts his madness in context, a moment of tenderness is quickly turned into a scene of oppression and violence.

Robinson’s portrayal of Pecola’s final descent from meek loneliness to utter destruction is devastating. The actress never lets Pecola’s voice raise in anger or defiance in regard to her situation, for the character doesn’t retain the strength. Pecola doesn’t realize she has beauty or value. She is used, manipulated, abused, destroyed, discarded and then blamed for it.

This is the Atlanta theater debut for Robinson, a recent New York University graduate, and her portrayal never betrays the actor’s age. Her ability to conjure Pecola’s naivete and innocence immerses the audience deep into the shocking tragedy of the assault scenes. Her closing monologue is heartbreaking. Her work is subtle and remarkable.


Benjamin Carr is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His first novel, Impacted, was published by The Story Plant in 2021.

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