Moriah Williams as Pecola Breedlove

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The Bluest Eye delivers literary tragedy

by Chris Nafekh

To address the hardships of self-acceptance that young women everywhere struggle to overcome, particularly black girls, NC Central University is bringing The Bluest Eye to Winston-Salem’s National Black Theatre Festival.

The festival will be the third time NCCU’s drama department has run Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s seminal book The Bluest Eye. The production premiered in April 2014 and was performed at the American College Theatre Festival this past February. The plot is heartbreaking; The Bluest Eye evokes a sorrow that does not fade easily.

The play begins with Pecola Breedlove, played by recent graduate Moriah Williams, arriving at temporary foster care after her unstable alcoholic father burns down their home. In foster care she meets Claudia and Frieda, played by seniors Deja Middleton and Kayln Smith, respectively.

Throughout the play, she is constantly reminded that she is “ugly.” With her self-confidence battered at every turn, young, black Pecola wishes to be white with blue eyes, what society has taught her is beautiful.[pullquote]

The Bluest Eye will be performed on Thursday and Friday night, and in the afternoon and evening on Saturday. All showings will be held at Winston-Salem State University’s Dillard Auditorium in the Anderson Center. For more information, visit nbtf.org

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“[The Bluest Eye] looks at the prominent challenges of society on a women’s self-esteem in the making of who she is,” said the director, NCCU theater professor Stephanie Asabi Howard. “It focuses on women in general, the idea of beauty, particularly what society presents to us and how we compare ourselves to that. Then of course, looking at it a little deeper as an African-American woman and the different challenges that society may place in her life.”

Howard has made a few forays into African-American literature and history. She wrote and directed God Spoke My Name: Maya Angelou as an original biographical play about the renowned poet. Howard has also directed The Color Purple, a play that shares a common, somber theme with The Bluest Eye.

The Bluest Eye,” Howard said, “is basically the story of a person who was called names and couldn’t get over it, that took in all the negative and, in a metaphorical way, wasn’t able to spit it back out. It’s probably the saddest play I’ve ever directed. With The Color Purple, you do leave with a sense of empowerment for Celie. There is no sense of empowerment for Pecola.

“As society members, we’re forced to look at Pecola’s mental and spiritual demise because she was not able to take pride in who she was,” Howard continued. “I guess in that way, it is a way to look at the lack of empowerment that would make us responsible for who we are and for children born in society who we could have a negative effect on, particularly for minorities. I try to figure out what is the hope you leave with this play. To the younger people, they leave thinking ‘I don’t have to succumb to society to feel good about myself.’”

Inertia in Levy Lee Simon’s blood

A still from the LA production of The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel.

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by Eric Ginsburg

Like a train moving at high speed, Levy Lee Simon likely couldn’t slow down if he wanted to. He’s a major component of three plays coming to this year’s festival — as an actor, producer, playwright and director. Inertia, it appears, is in his blood.

Levy Lee Simon

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“I surely have not come down wearing all those hats in one year, no no,” Simon said from Los Angeles last week. “I don’t think anyone has. It’s an honor, of course, and it’s a challenge.”

But for someone who holds the National Black Theatre Festival “in the highest regard,” and who has made the trek from New York or LA to Winston-Salem numerous times, the three plays he’ll be a part of aren’t necessarily the highlight of his week.

It’s the festival itself.

“To come down and to be a part of something that is so magnificent and is so grand,” he said, trailing off and then adding: “Any time you have thousands of black people coming together, feeling good, looking good… the energy level of it is unmatched anywhere. It’s certainly inspiring at the least and life-changing at the best.”

Simon is looking forward to reconnecting with the festival family, but he’ll hardly have much downtime. His play The Last Revolutionary will make its premiere this week. After the one-hour play, there will be an intermission and the audience will return to witness Dutchman, directed by Simon and written by the legendary Amiri Baraka.

And earlier in the week on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Robey Theatre Company from LA is scheduled to present The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel, which Simon wrote. It recently sold out 29-straight performances in LA, he said.

And the day after he returns home from the National Black Theatre Festival, he’ll hold auditions for a new production.[pullquote]

Catch The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel on Wednesday and The Last Revolutionary along with Dutchman Thursday through Saturday. See nbtf.org for details.

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Simon received acclaim for his trilogy on the Haitian revolution called For the Love of Freedom. Given that much of his writing deals with political issues and the black experience, it isn’t surprising he considers himself a sociopolitical artist. The Last Revolutionary is no different.

Growing up in Harlem, Simon witnessed some of the black power movement first hand, and he knows several people who were involved in the black liberation movement, in the 1970s as well.

“I’ll never forget the energy of that time, and the images of that time, you know the Afros and the dashikis and the threat of a revolution,” Simon said. “So I created a character who was kind of stuck in those days, even though we’re well past 2000.”

Mac Perkins, the lead character, is still waiting for that revolution, and sees a need to protect Obama. A confrontation with a friend who participated in the historic liberation struggle turns serious, but the play maintains a sense of humor, Simon said.

“In the end it becomes very, very real, and it’s brought up to date,” he said. “Obviously we’re in this new hotbed in political times here. Is [Perkins’] stance archaic or is it not? That becomes the major question that the play raises.”

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