(Director Khanisha Foster)

Khanisha Foster returns to Virginia Stage Company to direct another challenging play

By Jim Roberts

When Tom Quaintance, Virginia Stage Company’s artistic director, asked Khanisha Foster to direct “Disgraced” last year, she originally said no. When he asked again, she realized she had a responsibility to direct it.

“When people try to tell their own truth, without filters, it becomes very delicate,” she said. “In the wrong hands, it can be harmful or it can hurt.”

The Los Angeles-based director has taken on the same responsibility with this season’s production of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” But she didn’t need any arm-twisting this time, given that she and Quaintance met during a 2014 production of the show in Cape Fear, North Carolina. “That was the first project Tom and I ever worked together on,” she said. “Obviously, it solidified a really beautiful working relationship for the two of us—and a friendship.”

She also has a student/teacher relationship with Lydia Diamond, who adapted Morrison’s novel for the stage. “Toni Morrison, every word she writes is right,’ Foster said. “And Lydia Diamond—she was the right person to adapt it and did a beautiful job. I consider myself standing on each of their shoulders to make sure the literary world becomes this vivid visual world in the theater.”

Although there are painful elements in the story—including incest and rape—Foster said it’s important to her to reveal the joy in the show. “How do you hear if it all just pounds on you?” she said. “The truth is: We process pain in a lot of different ways. I know if I’m telling a sad story to someone about something real for me, I often make them laugh because I want to take care of the person I’m talking to. Toni does that too.”

The show’s cast hails from New York and L.A. as well as Norfolk State University. (For what it’s worth, the actress who plays Pecola Breedlove was hired over a video submission. “She just made me burst into tears,” Foster said.)

When casting, Foster said she looked for performers who are “radically and joyously themselves.” “It doesn’t mean that they are the characters,” she said. “It just means that they walk in the room, and there’s something about them that nobody else could be. … There’s something that thrills you, and you’re not sure what that is. I’m waiting for somebody to come in the room who really is just unique and weird and has something that other people don’t offer.”

Foster spoke to Veer Magazine before rehearsals began but just a few days after the news broke about Governor Ralph Northam’s controversial yearbook page. She revealed that her father was tortured by the Ku Klux Klan, so she has “real feelings” about the situation that “can’t be minimized.” She drew comparisons between Virginia’s current events and what happens in “The Bluest Eye”—in that it’s not about what happened in the past, but about how and why it happened.

“We should ask questions,” she said. “Why? How? That’s what we’re doing in the play. We’re holding our own communities present to what happens to young girls when we don’t hold everybody accountable. … You don’t let people off for their choices, but you ask why they did them so that they never happen again.”

And just like she did with “Disgraced,” Foster intends to handle the material with the delicacy it demands. “We all have an opportunity to be whole when we come into this world,” she said, “and we have an opportunity to make the world more nourishing for each other. And often, we just fail. And I think it’s a good time to be talking about that.”

Virginia Stage Company will present “The Bluest Eye” from March 6-24 at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk. Ticket prices start at $20. For more information, visit: vastage.org.