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On Q's The Bluest Eye Questions Beauty, Ugliness

by Kimberly Lawson

May 26, 2016

Photo: The cast of On Q's production of The Bluest Eye.

In late April, Kimberly Jones, better known as rapper Lil’ Kim, unveiled a new look to her followers on Instagram. The original Queen Bee, who released the late ’90s hits “No Time” and “Crush On You” (the first song this writer could rap all the way through), posted a collage of selfies that revealed more than just a fresh hairdo. Even to the untrained eye, it appeared the rapper had undergone extensive cosmetic surgery, including lightening her skin complexion.

Shocked fans responded swiftly to the posting. Some wondered why she was “trying to look white,” while others lamented the rapper’s inability to love herself in the skin she was born in. One fan on Twitter wrote, “it's really so sad that Lil Kim didn't realize how beautiful she was without all of the surgery & bleaching.”

Amidst the barrage of criticism, one writer found herself “oddly defensive” of Lil’ Kim’s decision to alter her appearance and explained her empathy in a piece for The Guardian. “To assume [Lil Kim] had agency is to blatantly disregard the societal pressures of Eurocentric beauty standards and the intraracial colourism that happens within the black community,” opined Patience Zalanga, a self-described black movement photographer from Minnesota. “Lil’ Kim’s transformation provides a glimpse of the damaging effects it has on black women.”

Women of color have long struggled with white (read: mainstream) standards of beauty. It’s a concept novelist Toni Morrison explored in her 1970 book The Bluest Eye, which tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year-old black Lil Kim's changes over the yearsgirl who longs for blue eyes because she believes they will bring her love and acceptance. With the play adaptation by Lydia Diamond premiering at Duke Energy Theatre June 1 through June 11 by On Q Performing Arts, director Kim Parati hopes audiences will continue to explore the socially constructed definitions of beauty.

“Toni Morrison talks about the master narrative being when told from the perspective of a heterosexual, Christian white male. If you are not that, then you have to find out where you sit within the narrative,” Parati says. “I think a lot of people of color, particularly black girls, have found themselves feeling less than valuable, less than beautiful, less than worthy, as a result of not fitting within this narrative. I think that that still holds true today.”

The Bluest Eye is Parati’s third production as director. Formerly Kim Watson Brooks, she’s performed in works with Charlotte Shakespeare, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre and others. Last year, she realized she wanted to try her hand at directing. After listening to Ava DuVernay speak in an interview, she realized how important it was for her as a black woman to share her perspective of how a story is shaped.

“[DuVernay] talks about when she was directing the opening scene of Selma with the five little girls, about how maybe a male director would have focused on the explosion. She wanted to focus on the everyday conversation being had by the little girls about something as simple as Coretta Scott King’s hair. And that draws you into the world because that could be any one of us before the explosion happens. And I thought, well yeah, because that’s how she sees it.”

Morrison had similar motivations when writing The Bluest Eye. She shares in a 2004 interview: “Most of what was being published by black men [in the ’60s] was very powerful, aggressive, revolutionary fiction or nonfiction. And also they had a very positive racially uplifting rhetoric to go with it, some of which, as an older person, I thought, wait a minute. … No one’s going to remember that it wasn’t always beautiful. No one’s going to remember how hurtful … racism is.”

Indeed, the powerful imagery and rich language of The Bluest Eye illustrates how painful racism is. Few who have read the novel would dare call it a joyful story. Thanks to a long line of abuse in Pecola’s family, we long to shelter the protagonist from the cruel realities of prejudice and tragedy. Certainly, with Pecola’s descent into insanity, it’s up for debate whether the novel ends with a happily ever after.

In Parati’s Bluest Eye, Ravyn King plays the role of Pecola. While the script and book describe this character as being ugly, Parati chose to cast someone she describes as physically beautiful and having “a little brightness.” After all, she says, what defines ugliness? “I wanted to direct the ugliness. I wanted to play with the definition of what it means to be ugly. What makes us ugly? Is it our features? Is it our lack of confidence? Is it our evil behavior? Because if that’s the case, Pecola isn’t the only ugly character in the show.”

Moreover, Parati addresses the notion that distorted definitions of beauty lie within the black community as much as they do within the world at large. Oftentimes people buy into the idea that a woman needs to have fairer skin, finer facial features and long, flowing hair to be considered beautiful. Those are the images we see in mainstream media. Everything else is considered inferior.

Parati points to a scene in the show that reveals this all too well when the narrators, sisters Claudia and Frieda, get offended at being called black. “The whole idea that to even call somebody black, or that your hair is nappy or that your nose is big, automatically suggests something inferior, something that’s less than, not as good. Like not having ‘good hair.’ Everybody loves the point in Lemonade when Beyoncé says ‘call Becky with the good hair’ because we have heard that. We have heard phrases like ‘yellow-wasted,’ ‘black e mo,’ ‘black as night’ … within the black community, and not said in a positive way. So I think it’s so easy to say the world at large, white people this, white people that—but it’s not just white people. It’s people in your own community who make you feel less than worthy. It gives rise to a Lil’ Kim and many like her.”

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Tags: Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, Lil Kim, Eurocentric, skin color, beauty, Lydia Diamond, On Q Performing Arts, Kim Parati

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