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'The Bluest Eye' Focuses On Issues Of Beauty And Personal Identity

January 30, 2013 1 p.m.

GUESTS

Lorene Chesley, actor, “The Bluest Eye.”

Warner Miller, actor, “The Bluest Eye.”

Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, director, “The Bluest Eye,” and artistic director, Moxie Theatre.

Related Story: 'The Bluest Eye' Focuses On Issues Of Beauty And Personal Identity

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, is about as painful and powerful as a you book can get. The theatrical production is coming to the San Diego this weekend. The story has become a rallying cry for people of color struggling with issues of beauty and identity. But the cast of San Diego's production remind us those issues transcend race and affect everyone. My guests, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg is director of The Bluest Eye and artistic director of moxie theatre. Good to see you again.

SONNENBERG: Hello, good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Lorene Chesley is here.

CHESLEY: Hi, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: Good. And Warner Miller, also in The Bluest Eye.

MILLER: Hi.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for coming in. Now, this is quite some novel to take on as a theatre piece. Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of the plot?

SONNENBERG: Yes, the plot, the story follows the year in the life of an 11-year-old, and starts in fall and ends in summer. She prays for blue eyes and hopes that she'll receive the love and respect that she's longing for.

CAVANAUGH: And a lot happens to her during that year.

SONNENBERG: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, why did you choose to stage this play?

SONNENBERG: I was actually approached by Seema, are who has a relationship with the playwright who adapted the book into a play, Lydia Diamond. She thought it would be an interesting copro for us to do together. It's the mission of both of our theatres.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, in changing this book to a theatrical production, since the book is so cherished by so many people, did anything really change from the page to the stage?

SONNENBERG: Yes. The play is first of all commissioned and written for young audiences. And necessarily, the novel is novel-length, and the play is an hour and a half. So there are some things that are -- some incidents that are left out of the play that are in the book.

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

SONNENBERG: Or Pecola's brother, for example, who's in the novel, she's not in the play. The playwright, she adapt today from the book. So we're just doing her adaptation straight.

CAVANAUGH: One of the major adaptations made in this play is the change in the narrator, right? We hear each character's story from their own mouth rather than from the narrator that's used in the book.

SONNENBERG: Some, right in the book, Claudia narrates the entire story. In the play, she and her sister Frieda share some narration, and like you just said, a lot of the characters narrate their stories.

CAVANAUGH: Their stories, just to bring it to life because it's a theatre piece.

SONNENBERG: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Now, is it necessary or desirable for people to read the book before they see the play?

SONNENBERG: I would say if they're going to read the book, read the book after.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, why!

SONNENBERG: Because I think that's what I did, I know Lorene did too. I read the book, and then I had to put it away and concentrate just on what's in the play, and treat it like its own piece of art. It's like my spine, really, I know it's there, but I don't think about it every second because I have to concentrate on the actors and their characters and bringing those characters to life and this adaptation.

CAVANAUGH: Before I go to our actors here, I really would like to just have you remind us about the book's author, Toni Morrison and what she's known for.

SONNENBERG: I think she's an American treasure. Well, I don't think, she is an American treasure. Her novels are poetic and boldly expressive, she won the nonel prize in 1993, and the Pulitzer in 1988 for Beloved. Bluest Eye is her debut novel.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about your character.

CHESLEY: Claudia is one of the main narrator, but she's always a precocious, sensitive girl. And just a little, I think, ahead of her time, honestly. She's fierce and feisty, and she really empathizes with the character, Pecola, and the struggles that she has to go to. And we delve into those themes of the grownups and the adults not taking care of the kids. And Pecola needs someone to take care of her. So Claudia and her sister go on this journey, even though she's just with them for a very brief time. They really try to take her under her wing and do the best they can. She I think is telling this story because it's important that people know what happened and how we can prevent this.

CAVANAUGH: I think we can hear some of the precociousness and the strength of your character, Claudia, in the piece that you're going to be reading for us.

CHESLEY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: From the play. Could you read that scene right now?

CHESLEY: Sure!

CAVANAUGH: It's read by Claudia who's the narrator of the story, and she tells us why she hates Shirley Temple.

CHESLEY: It all started with my annual blonde, blue-eyed Christmas doll. What was I supposed to do with it? Feed it? Rock it? Bathe it? Be its mother? I'll tell you what I did with it. I destroyed it. I had only one desire. To dismember it! If I could rip it apart, maybe I could understand what the world thought was so wonderful about pink skin and yellow hair! What was worse, I wanted to commit a systematic dismembering of real little white girls to understand what magic it was they we've beened on others. What was it that made people look at them and say ah, but not see me at all? Why was I invisible next to little blight girls? If I pinched them, they actually cried. Later I learned my desire to hurt white girls of repulsive. I learned to make a show of loving Shirley Temple. I even convinced myself! But I was years away from understanding the complexity of my emotions and so was resigned to fit and fume while Frieda and Pecola played with their dolls on into the night.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much for that.

CHESLEY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: What happens to a young black girl who wishes she was a young white girl?

SONNENBERG: I really don't feel qualified to answer that question!
[ LAUGHTER ]

SONNENBERG: But, it's so outside of my own personal experience, but I imagine that it leads to a sort of self-hatred, right? It's an impossible wish.

CAVANAUGH: And a complete lack of self-esteem.

SONNENBERG: Right, right

CAVANAUGH: Let me go to you Warner. You have I very unsympathetic part in this play. You play Cholly, Pecola's father, and you rape your daughter in the play. How do you find humanity in that character?

MILLER: First by not judging him, as an actor, a story teller, my job is to not judge a character and tell a story simply. So it was important to me to articulate this man in all his flaws and all his, you know, bad choices, not justifying it but not focussing on the choices as opposed to the humanity of this man and how he's even given all those things not so different than all of us. And as far as our ability to make terrible choices, be products of our environment but still take responsibility for those choices. So for me, that's what made it -- for lack of a better word, bearable to create this character.

CAVANAUGH: This play is a great deal about female identity and notions of what is beautiful. Of it's a recurring theme in this play. As a man, how do you relate to that?

MILLER: I think that affects -- well, I know it affects men and women. Regardless of race, gender, regardless of any of those things. You ask the question of Delicia, as far as what does pretending -- or desiring to be a white girl in the case of pacoal ado to a woman? Well, my own personal story, I had desires as a young dark-skinned black boy wanting to be something that I wasn't, wanting a smaller nose, wanting, you know, a different name. That's the universality of that.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, exactly. I think one of the points you're making with this play is just as Warner can see himself in the kind of dilemmas that the female characters are having, all of us can see the fact that we don't want to look the way we look or we want to look like somebody else and how that undermines our childhood and perhaps the rest of our lives.

SONNENBERG: Yes, right, exactly. And how that starts in first the female, and then the community, and in the world. And I love that image in the book, and in the play, about the soil being hostile to the merry gold seeds. They can't grow in this soil. So having fertile soil for young people's imaginations and self-images to flourish rather than wither and die. I think that's important.

CAVANAUGH: Lorene and warner, this book is set in the '40s. And it was written in the '70s. And you two are young people from a new generation. How does this story speak to your generation?

CHESLEY: I would say, again, a lot of the themes, people are still dealing with the same types of identity crisis issues. I still know a lot of -- I have a lot of brown-skinned sisters, good girlfriends of mine that still wanted the exact same thing. And I could empathize with them. I'm light, or whatever, but I still -- I always wanted to be brown growing up. I always wanted to be a lot darker. But I could understand just wanting to be different, wanting to maybe straighten my hair when I was younger, not having it so kinky and curling at the time. It doesn't matter how much things get older, certain things unfortunately remain the same. And that's why I think it's important to -- I think this is probably a show, I think 15 year-olds could see it easily and gain a lot from it.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. And despite the universality we were talking about, this still seems to be an issue even in this day and age, largely that people of color have to contend with. Would you agree with that?

MILLER: Absolutely, absolutely. And I appreciate you bringing that up. In its universality, it's something that is specific in some degree with -- and not even just African Americans, but people of color as you said, desiring especially and not exclusively but especially in this country where there is a, you know, is there a standard of beauty, and it does look a certain way, and it looks a way that the majority of this country is not.

SONNENBERG: Right!

CAVANAUGH: Right, yeah.

MILLER: So these things as Lorene said are not anything that's new. But again, the issue of being a shade or a race or having features of a race that you just don't innately have is absolutely something that is quite tragic.

CAVANAUGH: As a director, could you tell us some of the challenges that you faced?

SONNENBERG: Ah, yes! One of my main challenges actually is honoring the poetry of the language of the play, and still keeping it grounded without getting bogged down in realism because it's very theatrical. But also the biggest challenge that we're working on this week that I'm working on as a director is balancing the light and the dark. And you would think based on this conversation that it's finding the light that I'm having a hard time with. But really it's finding the dark, making it -- making sure that those moments when emotional violence is done to Cholly as a young boy trying into manhood, and when violence is done to Pecola both physical and emotional, that those things are stark and --

CAVANAUGH: And really rivet.

SONNENBERG: Right.

CAVANAUGH: The Bluest Eye begins previews February 2nd, runs through March 3rd at moxie theatre in the college area. Thank you all very much.

CHESLEY: Thank you so much for having us.

SONNENBERG: Thank you.

MILLER: Thank you.