Before the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s, there was 11-year old Pecola Breedlove, the protagonist of Toni Morrison’s novel, “The Bluest Eye.” In post-Depression-era Ohio, Pecola equates beauty with whiteness, and she longs for the blue eyes and fair skin of child star Shirley Temple.
In Lydia Diamond’s stage adaptation of “The Bluest Eye,” running Dec. 4-20 at Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, Pecola struggles to overcome a childhood scarred by poverty and violence in hopes of finding love and acceptance.
Director Clayton Shelvin believes “The Bluest Eye” is a chance for Le Petit’s new management to reaffirm its commitment to serving all of New Orleans.
“This is an opportunity for us to really invite people into the theater that I think we haven’t seen there in a while,” Shelvin said. “And when I say that, it’s not just African-American people but young people, any people of color. We’re really trying to make sure that people feel welcome, and that people feel like there’s something that they can connect with at the theater.”
“The Bluest Eye” tells Pecola’s story from multiple points of view, including the perspectives of sisters Claudia and Frieda (played by LaSharron Purvis and Destani Smith), whose family takes in Pecola (Constance Thompson) as a foster child when her house burns down. The play delves into Pecola’s parents’ past to reveal the complicated cycle of anger and abuse that continues to plague the young girl thorough adolescence and beyond.
Morrison’s controversial novel is a frequent target of groups that want to ban the book from classrooms, and Le Petit warns that the play’s mature content may not be appropriate for children 13 and under. While Shelvin recognizes the challenges of presenting sensitive material, he doesn’t believe it should define the spirit of the production.
“The central thing that really keeps this story from becoming the ultimate tragedy — which, it is tragic — is that all these characters somehow maintain hope; these people are really looking for ways to go on and make their lives better,” Shelvin said. “We know these people, especially in our community, and there’s a lot of laughs, even though the story is really heavy.”
“The Bluest Eye” marks Shelvin’s directorial debut in New Orleans, but he’s no stranger to the stage at Le Petit, having choreographed numerous shows in recent seasons, including “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
This season, Shelvin serves as the theater’s associate producer and education director. As education director, he has been busy working with local high schools to make sure students have a chance to see “The Bluest Eye,” and he partnered with students from Dillard University’s theater department to create a study guide to help teachers and parents navigate the themes of the play.
“I feel like it’s so relevant to right now, because we’re seeing this stuff happen all over the country, and we still have to be talking,” Shelvin said. “So hopefully it opens up some doors for people just to continue having conversations, really important conversations, about our community and how we take care of each other.”