Lonne Elder's play Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, debuted a year apart, at a time of dawning militancy in black activism. Ceremonies was first staged in 1969 and takes place in Harlem during the late 1960s, while The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, evokes Morrison's childhood hometown in Ohio in the early 1940s. Both writers use close-up views of black families to capture, in merciless detail, the effects of white racism in shaping and subverting the character of communities.
In True Colors Theatre Company's production of Ceremonies, the jobless members of an African-American family join a criminal enterprise under the justification of black pride and the idea of ridding their Harlem neighborhood of "Mr. You Know Who." In Lydia Diamond's theatrical adaptation of The Bluest Eye, staged at Horizon Theatre, young black girls suffer terrible self-esteem issues at a time when Shirley Temple serves as the embodiment of beauty.
Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (presented as part of the National Black Arts Festival) and The Bluest Eye each presents a fresh look at angry, eloquent African-American literature. True Colors gives Ceremonies a welcome revival, while Horizon's theatrical version invites a reassessment of Morrison's debut novel. Both plays have flaws, but they're both undeniably fascinating.
Ceremonies presents the Parker family, in which the unemployed father, Russell (Glynn Turman), and his sons, Theopolis and Bobby (real-life brothers Brandon and Jason Dirden, both very good), are more than willing to let Russell's daughter Adele (Karan Kendrick) labor as the family breadwinner. Theo comes up with a way for the men to renew their self-respect without toiling for white employers. Sharp-dressed Blue Haven (E. Roger Mitchell) heads the Harlem Decolonization Association, an activist group that's the thinnest possible front for organized crime. The elder and younger Parkers all too eagerly agree to use Russell's failed barbershop as a base for Theo's bootleg "black lightning" whiskey.
Turman lives up to his celebrated reputation as an actor (see this week's Speakeasy) displaying some of the finest timing I've ever seen. When Theo reveals his homemade whiskey, Turman deadpans, "I believe I'll try a little bit of that," with such restraint it becomes as hilarious as any obvious punch line. Humor overhangs Ceremonies' intimations of tragedy, particularly when Russell plays a game of checkers and makes wordless exclamations of concentration, triumph and dismay during the game with his best friend (Eugene Lee). Russell also shares tall tales with his sons that, however amusing, hint at how none of the men really appreciate reality.
Director Kenny Leon encourages and reaps the benefits of the cast's jazzlike riffs. Artistic director of True Colors, Leon became the director of choice for the late August Wilson's final plays, and shows a mastery of scenes with characters showing off their gift of gab. But he can also command stillness, particularly in Blue's long, unsettling speech in which the criminal reveals his ruthless drive to power that's even greater than his passion for life and love. Ceremonies shows its age, relying on a fairly predictable dramatic trajectory and dialogue that announces the themes a bit too overtly, but Leon and his actors bring out the best in it.
In Horizon Theatre's The Bluest Eye, director Thomas W. Jones II finds humor that's even more surprising and welcome than in Ceremonies. As if to compensate for the book's interior monologues, The Bluest Eye offers a physically demonstrative expression of childhood, full of skipping and spinning. Young Claudia (Bobbie Lynne Scott) and her rambunctious sister Frida (Jessica Frances Dukes) recount with gossipy fascination the life of their troubled friend Pecola Breedlove (Joaquina Kalukango). Kalukango portrays Pecola as even more naïve and girlish than her friends, and she clings to the idea that having blue eyes will make her more worthy of love.
Amusingly, Claudia finds an outlet for her rage at the racial double standard when she gets a cutesy-poo white doll for Christmas, which she proceeds to torture. An account of Pecola's parents' vicious fights, although potentially unfolding as a scene of frightening domestic violence, instead appears in slow-motion, like a prize-fight parody, with the diminutive wife (Carol Mitchell-Leon) throwing punches even more powerfully than her husband (Neal Hazard). The first-act humor softens the blow of the second half, which would otherwise be unbearably grim.
Comparable to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the black girls feel insignificant, particularly in a shocking moment when one of their mothers shows more tenderness to a white employer's child than she ever showed her own daughters. Such scenes convey the conflicting emotions fostered by racism, and Neal Hazard, although spending relatively few scenes in the spotlights, gives Pecola's father a seemingly bottomless reservoir of pain that finds unspeakable outlets.
Onstage, The Bluest Eye resembles a book with multiple narrators, but Jones smoothly switches between perspectives. The show suffers from a few missteps, though. Recorded music bridges scenes, and though the simple lyrics are meant to be timeless, they sound far too contemporary and overproduced, like a radio picking up a signal from half a century later. Though the play's ending resembles the epiphany at the end of the novel, it leaves so many emotional loose ends that it's not very satisfying as drama.
Like Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, The Bluest Eye acknowledges systematic bigotry without using it as an excuse for its characters harmful, self-destructive choices. Perhaps both plays reaffirm their status as literature by viewing everyone equally: They refuse to let anyone off the hook.