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05Apr

The Bluest Eye - Duke Ellington School of the Arts - Washington, DC - March 31, 2017

Charlie Parsons

Westfield High School

 

A single violinist steps out of the darkness and begins to play with a beautiful vibrato. Suddenly the cast of characters seated in darkness leap out of silence and into fluid dance.  The cast of Duke Ellington School's "The Bluest Eye" unapologetically shatters stillness and silence with its deft exploration of racism, identity, beauty, and pain.

 

"The Bluest Eye" is based on the Toni Morrison novel of the same name.  Despite widespread acclaim, the novel continues to garner controversy for its themes confronting racism and abuse. The play adaptation, by Lydia Diamond, premiered at the Steppenwolf theater in Chicago, in 2005. It was reprised at the same theater in 2006. "The Bluest Eye" premiered off-Broadway that year as well.

 

Set in the 1940s, the play follows the traumatic life of Pecola Breedlove, a child who faces abuse, both by a white society that says her skin color makes her ugly and by an alcoholic father who attacks her. Pecola wants nothing more than the blue eyes she associates with beauty. Claudia and Frieda, two sisters who are friends of Pecola, narrate the show. 

 

Mahkai Carroll played the mistreated Pecola Breedlove with profound grace. Carroll expertly navigated the character's insecurities and hopes to weave a stunning portrait of the emotions behind Pecola's yearning for blue eyes. Cobe Jackson brought terrifying derangement to the stage in his portrayal of Pecola's unhinged father, Cholly. Jackson's nuanced performance of an abuser was as tactful as it was chilling. 

 

Madison Chambers, who played Claudia, and Brittani Murphy, who played Frieda, bounced off each other's creative energies.  In their scenes together they played the dynamics of sisterhood with perfect timing, and distinct, continuously child-like physicalizations. Claudia and Frieda advanced the narrative while the audience held on to every word. The captivating ensemble inserted music and dance into transitions that built the entire ambiance of the show. The ensemble was wholly unified, moving as one powerful group.

 

The cast's complete understanding of the show revealed itself constantly throughout the performance, and it again showed itself in marketing and publicity. The simple, professional quality poster that features the face of Pecola smeared with white paint, captures the essence of the show. Students also used publicity as an opportunity to give back. Through their creation of the "In My Eyes" initiative, students raised money to invite young women from Girls, Inc. and similar organizations to see the show, talk to the cast, and experience a VIP treatment. 

 

 As the lights begin to dim and the violinist pulls her last note, the audience is given a brief moment of still silence before the thunderous applause. This silence is no longer filled with anticipation, but with new questions and self-reflection. Duke Ellington's performance of "The Bluest Eye" was thought-provoking and moving throughout.


Aubrey Winger

Loudoun Valley High School

 

The lights come up on a girl in a white dress, contorted around her swollen stomach as clutched a tattered children's book. She begins: "Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty." As more people trickle onto the stage, the Duke Ellington ensemble becomes a cataclysmic force, all completely fixated on telling a story that matters, the story of "The Bluest Eye."

 

"The Bluest Eye" adapted for the stage by Lydia Diamond and based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison. Set in the 1940's, this show's narrative storyline is constructed around an eleven-year-old girl named Pecola and the prejudice and abuse she encounters as a young black girl from a broken home.

 

Pecola (Mahkai Carroll) contrasted the fierceness of her fellow cast members perfectly. She expertly created a debilitating sense of inferiority through her obvious worship of the blue-eyed blond girls she used to define her own beauty. Her stature was small and timid as she exemplified the innocence of adolescence and her own unbridled self-hatred.

 

Cobe Jackson offered immense depth in his portrayal of Pecola's abusive father, Cholly. Although he could have easily fallen into the stereotypes of a villain, he created a morally grey character susceptible to drunken rage. As the show progressed, he explored every layer of his personality, becoming increasingly more volatile while expressing a heartbreaking character arc.

 

Darzaya Scott as Mrs. Breedlove phenomenally personified faded romance with her prominent limp and agonizing self-deprecation. On the other hand, Eliza Booke radiated confidence in her portrayal of "six fingered, dog-toothed Maureen Pie."

 

Mama (Ta'Neesha Murphy) and Daddy (Roy Lightfoot) both scolded their children like true parents would. Murphy was particularly dynamic onstage; she enraptured the audience with every line, even the ones about dairy products. Lightfoot completely transformed himself into his character, never letting his posture betray his true age. He later joined the ensemble to show off his soulful singing voice.

 

Claudia (Madison Chambers) and Frieda (Brittani Murphy) offered hilarious, thoughtful narration throughout the show. Their quirky personalities shown through as they both fully embraced the physicality of petulant children. Chambers juxtaposed this youthful exuberance with guilt-ridden monologues regarding her hatred of "little white girls" that highlighted her powerful facial expressions and assertive voice.

 

The ensemble worked cohesively to create the dark and tantalizing atmosphere of the show. Their intensity was a result of their ability to accentuate moments in the show with subtle movement and vocal performance. Every character moved flawlessly, and the abstract choreography was executed beautifully, bringing the mature topics of the show to light in a tasteful way.

 

Violinist, Bismillah Ba'th fiddled away, using her impressive musicianship to give texture and atmosphere to every transition in the show. The use of projections exemplified Pecola's obsession with the "perfect" white girl and her misguided belief that life would be better had she been given blue eyes.

 

The marketing team captured the essence of the show through their video series and school events. Their "In My Eyes" campaign managed to raise about $1,000 for a charity supporting young girls.

 

A story of heartbreak and youth, Duke Ellington's production of The Bluest Eye shed light on our own warped perceptions and the true definition of beauty.

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