UC Davis “The Bluest Eye” cast enters prestigious theater festival

UC Davis “The Bluest Eye” cast enters prestigious theater festival

Photo Credits: JOSEPH FLORES / COURTESY

Theater ensemble raising money to proceed with the competition

“The Bluest Eye,” sponsored by the UC Davis Department of Theater and Dance, will be performing at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region 7 Finals from Feb. 18 to 22. Based on the novel “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, the story is acted out through puppetry — not actors. This stylistic choice and distinctive way of performing is not how the play is normally performed, but it is what ultimately garnered attention leading to a place in this prestigious theater competition.

The cast and crew of 20 people will go to the University of Oregon in Eugene in hopes to win and advance to the next level of the competition, which takes place in Washington. They are currently raising money through their GoFundMe page in order to meet their $10,000 goal, which will go toward travel expenses. The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival is a weeklong festival that includes workshops, tech Olympics, public speakers and multiple different educational opportunities from which the whole cast can benefit. The festival holds a competition between three college campuses. This year, “The Bluest Eye” cast and crew will showcase their play on Tuesday, Feb. 19 and will be up against two other colleges: Linn-Benton Community College and Humboldt State University.

“We were in the last week of rehearsal and I said, ‘this is gorgeous,’” said Margaret Laurena Kemp, the director of the show and an associate professor of theatre and dance at UC Davis. “I don’t think [the cast and crew] realized how much they grew, how much they knew about theatre making and visual storytelling and theatre for social change and […] the panelists were really more than impressed, they were really blown away.”

“The Bluest Eye” cast and crew have been together for two years. At first the performance started like any other UC Davis theater performance. When Kemp saw the dedication of the cast to learn puppetry and make the puppets come alive, she submitted a picture to the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, which ultimately got the cast recognized. The KCACTF sent in adjudicators to interview “The Bluest Eye” crew, asking them questions about the production. After watching the play, the cast and crew lined up ready for an interview with the ensemble and the adjudicators. Questions ranged from the logistics of why they chose to use puppets to how they used the puppets and what the experience was like with the puppets.  

“I felt like our cast and our energy with the puppets was something they probably may not have seen,” said Renata Zacarias, a third-year theatre and dance major, as she recalled how she felt after the interview process with the adjudicators from KCACTF.

With a diverse cast, the production is able to successfully act out, through puppets, the heavy-hitting topics that the book discusses, like racism and definitions of beauty.

“I think [winning] would definitely prove that people want to see the show,” said Jillian Yong, a second-year international relations and theatre and dance double major. “And all of us believe in the message of the show. And it’s become very important to a lot of us. The cast is almost completely people of color, which is really cool. Especially because theater tends to be pretty white. So it’s really cool to see a cast that’s primarily people of color, especially women of color, too. So it would mean a lot in that people want to see this show and they want to see this message.”

Kemp concluded that using puppets would tell the story, which speaks volumes about racial injustices in the United States, in a meaningful manner. Kemp called an old coworker in South Africa, Janni Young, and asked if she could come to the US in the summer to build the puppets and reimagine the script with the concept of puppetry in mind. Young went on to become co-director of the show and taught the cast how to properly use the puppets.

“We decided to use the puppets so that we can think of class in a wider range of race and ethnicity, away from the specifics of the show and its visual theatre,” Kemp said.

The hard-hitting show left an impact not only on the viewers, but on the cast as well.

“It’s definitely made me more conscious of what shows I’m doing and what the message is of the show that I’m doing,” Yong said. “Because none of the shows I’ve done since then have had such a strong message.”

With only a few days left to head over to the festival, the ensemble still needs a significant amount of donations in order to cover their costs.

“This show has gone through a lot,” Yong said. “Sometimes it’s a little bit tough because it feels like we’re rallying ourselves. And sometimes it feels like there isn’t a ton of support. But then, I’ll see emails about so and so donated or so and so left a comment on your GoFundMe post. It’s really inspiring when people do that, and it helps a lot and it means a lot. I feel like we’re very lucky to have this community that’s willing to give support like that.”

Written By: Itzelth Gamboa — arts@theaggie.org