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Live Topic: Puppetry in ‘The Bluest Eye’

By Dateline Staff on September 3, 2020 in University

Margaret Laurena Kemp, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, will be featured this weekend in a livestreamed program about the use of puppets in UC Davis’ award-winning production of The Bluest Eye, which she co-directed.

Adapted from the late Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye foreshadowed the author’s rise to fame as “a beloved novelist of black life,” as described in a New York Times headline upon her death in August 2019. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved and was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1993.

The Department of Theatre and Dance staged The Bluest Eye in Main Theatre in May 2018, marking the first time the play had been performed with puppets. Students had visible roles, too, manipulating the puppets and giving them voice.

Race, class, gender

Set in an Ohio town in 1940-41, Morrison’s novel revolves around a Black girl named Pecola Breedlove whose family is in turmoil, who wants to be loved and who prays to have blue eyes like Shirley Temple’s, believing their beauty is the only thing standing between her and being happy like the white girls at school.

“This show will come to life on stage by melding the work of an African American writer and an application of South African puppetry,” Kemp said in advance publicity. “These approaches will underscore the myth and magical realism that is ingrained in the narrative as a path to unpacking the themes of race, class and gender that are the core of this work.”

Puppet creator Janni Younge took on co-director duties as a Granada Artist in Residence in the Department of Theatre and Dance. She and Kemp had met earlier in South Africa, where Kemp attended one of Younge’s workshops.

On her webpage devoted to UC Davis’ The Bluest Eye, Younge says: “The puppetry highlights the formation and fragility of self. It forms a layer of meaning, literally building the self as if it is held and supported (or not supported) by a community at large.”

Kennedy Center commendations

The UC Davis troupe reprised its work in February 2019 at the University of Oregon, in a regional event that was part of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. The Bluest Eye earned four commendations, the first national awards for a Department of Theatre and Dance production.

The play earned two awards for distinguished achievement, one for the ensemble performance and one for the directors. The judges presented a special award to Younge and the creative team for their puppet design, and honored Karola Lüttringhaus, a doctoral candidate, for costume design for the puppets and puppeteers.

Two students flank pupper, who holds a book.
In rehearsal: Tiffany Nwogu, left, and Rose Kim with Pecola in “The Bluest Eye,” 2018. (Nicholas Yoon/UC Davis)

‘Truth and reconciliation’

Younge’s directing credits include a revival of Ubu and the Truth Commission, with puppets and actors — a play that Kemp saw in South Africa and which provided inspiration for her talk this weekend, “Rehearsing Truth and Reconciliation: Casting Puppets in The Bluest Eye.

The play proved to be an enlightening journey for the ensemble. “Our students believed in the mission of this exploration ... to figure out a way to explore contemporary theatre/narratives that might not be a part of the students’ own cultures,” Kemp said. “They had to invent a way to do this that was respectful to another culture and that did not engage in cultural appropriation.”

Kemp’s talk Saturday (Sept. 5) will be part of Dragon Con, a multimedia pop culture convention being held virtually. Paulette Richards, a scholar of African American puppetry, is due to interview Kemp about the challenges and rewards of her rehearsal process for The Bluest Eye, racial equity in college theater programs and using puppets to mediate W.E.B. DuBois’ double consciousness. See box for details.

Connecting with Toni Morrison

Kemp went through Morrison’s agent to secure permission for UC Davis’ unique production of The Bluest Eye. “Knowing that Toni Morrison was aware of what we accomplished and knew the reasons why we performed the work the way that we did, is tremendously gratifying,” she said, reflecting on her connection to the author before her death.

For the UC Davis production, based on Lydia Diamond’s 2006 adaptation, a full-length play, Kemp added scenes from the novel to bring the play to life for visual and live-action storytelling, in place of large chunks of narration.

“This was another reason I thought puppets would work,” Kemp said. “We could make the narration live-action. This is most impactful in Pecola’s rape scene and in the final scene of the play.”

Michael French, arts marketing specialist, contributing to this report.

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