Aurora Theatre Company Turns Up the Dial with 'The Bluest Eye'

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Artwork for The Bluest Eye at Aurora Theatre Company (Elizabeth Lada)

In a curious twist on the classic, prescient Buggles tune, while video may have killed the radio star, radio has been a lifeline for theater-makers seeking platforms for their creative work during the shutdown of live performance. In fact, ever since radio’s golden age it’s been a conduit for storytellers of every genre, including family comedies, serial dramas, and edgy thrillers. While many of these migrated to television in the 1950s, the radio play continued on, with some of the most renowned playwrights and storytellers of the day writing work specifically for the medium. And since podcasting has given rise to a whole new generation of radio play lovers in the last decade, it feels only natural that theater-makers would turn to it in the absence of live performance.

Although Aurora Theatre optimistically announced its 2020-2021 in-person season in late March 2020—a season that was to be newly-appointed artistic director Josh Costello’s first—they were soon forced to reconsider their creative output for the year. One of the first theaters to dive into webcasting with their “Aurora Connects” interview and panel discussion series, Aurora was also one of the first to tackle the development of a new original radio play, enlisting the talents of Bay Area-based playwrights Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector to create The Flats, a three-part series set in a sheltered-in-place Berkeley apartment building.

Aurora Theatre Company has turned to the radio play format as their preferred medium for pandemic producing. (David Allen)

Originally scheduled to be performed live in December 2020, in commemoration of the novel’s 50-year anniversary, Lydia R. Diamond’s award-winning adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has instead surfaced four months late as Aurora’s latest foray into radio drama. Directed by Aurora’s associate artistic director Dawn Monique Williams, and starring Jasmine Milan Williams as youthful protagonist Pecola Breedlove, The Bluest Eye focuses attention on the often turbulent realities of Black girlhood in 1941.

Narrated primarily by Pecola’s sometime foster sister Claudia (Jeunée Simon), and supported by a rotating cast of parents, peers, gossips, and seers, The Bluest Eye tackles themes such as racism, colorism, classism, domestic violence and sexual abuse with uncompromising frankness. Despite being set in a post-Great Depression timeframe—lines read from Pecola’s Dick and Jane primer, penny candy, a fervor for Shirley Temple—there’s much about the work, play and novel both, that speaks very directly to our present moment, as we continue to grapple with these same issues.

It’s no small feat to adapt a work of literature for the stage, let alone for the radio. A play written for the stage assumes that there will be actors’ bodies to describe unwritten action, design elements to set the scene, and an audience to fill the space. But a radio play must rely on its audience to create their own visuals, enhanced only by whatever description the playwright sees fit to share. Fortunately, Diamond frontloads her script with those very details: marigold seeds in unfertile ground, stacked firewood to stave off the winter cold, boisterous schoolyard encounters, and the private lives of the residents of the town—no longer private once Claudia reveals their secrets out loud. Claudia’s omniscience is not noticed by the subjects of her scrutiny, but she narrates the inner workings of small time life into existence with observant confidence.

Dawn Monique Williams directs 'The Bluest Eye' at Aurora Theatre Company. (Jordyn Williams)

Under Dawn Monique Williams’ direction, an emotionally devastating tale unfolds. Pecola comes into Claudia’s loving home as a “peculiar” misfit. Looked down upon by the townsfolk and abused by her father Cholly (Michael J. Asberry), who has also just burned down their family home, Pecola dreams not of standing out but of shrinking away, of disappearing altogether. Failing that, she decides that the way to gain the respect and admiration she craves is to have blue eyes—like her celebrity crush, Shirley Temple. Her self-loathing both ages her prematurely and sets her apart, even while Claudia and her sister Frieda (Sam Jackson) include her in their games and take ownership of her socialization.

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Each actor plays multiple roles, the timbre of their voices shifting easily, the way that onstage they might slip on a different hat or remove a scarf. Cathleen Riddley’s dreamy recollection of falling in love flows like the gentle piano music composed by Elton Bradman that anchors it from below. A chatter of neighborhood gossips recalls a flock of summer birds. There's a deeply ominous turn from Michael J. Asberry, who narrates Cholly’s acts of violence with steely determination. Elton Bradman’s supportive musical score and detailed sound design add weight to the structure of the play, which is built solidly upon Morrison’s facility for internal monologue.

While for my distractible self, audio plays do take a bit of extra work to connect with, their recent resurgence in the theater community has been one I’ve come to appreciate. When one can rely only on the voices of the actors, the richness of the language is emphasized in ways that sometimes a live onstage production can obscure. Stripped to the essence of storytelling, the strength of the radio play is in its ability to world-build without physical limitations—and in the case of The Bluest Eye, without flinching.

'The Bluest Eye' runs through May 21, 2021. Details here.