Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: (Ottawa) The Edward Curtis Project

Quelemia Sparrow

What the eye sees, the heart feels
by Nanette Cormier

Edward Curtis (Todd Duckworth) first photographed Princess Angeline, also known as Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle in 1895. She was the first Native American he photographed. He would go on to take over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes.  

Written and directed by Marie Clements, The Edward Curtis Project explores the difficulty of integrating and making sense of what we see in the world around us through the eyes of an early 20th century American photographer, Edward Curtis, and a present-day Métis journalist, Angeline. 

The overall effect layered visual content, non-intrusive music and words that make your heart sing.

The set is surrounded by surfaces which are lit up by both still and moving photography.  These are first used as a family album to introduce us to Angeline’s family, then as a bridge between the present and the past, to introduce characters and to show the works of Edward Curtis. Lighting design (John Webber) and sound design and music (Bruce Ruddell) are a holistic part of the production—not to mention the fog and haze and strobe lights. The overall effect layered visual content, non-intrusive music and words that make your heart sing. Marie Clements writes with humour and compassion, and doesn’t shy away from the subject of racism.  

Angeline, (Quelemia Sparrow), overwhelmed by something she has seen in the course of her work as a journalist is depressed. In an effort to help her out of her funk, her sister, Clara, played by Kathleen Duborg, gives her a copy of Edward Curtis’s life work entitled, “The Vanishing Indian”.  As Angeline clutches the book to her chest, she says: “Finally a darkness with my name on it.”  Shortly thereafter she asks Curtis if he’s ever been depressed—“Yes, off and on,” he replies.  “For how long?” asks Angeline.  “My whole life,” he answers. That got a giggle from the audience.

Curtis himself would receive no salary for the project, which was to last more than 20 years. 

In 1906, Jaye P. Morgan gave Curtis $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. This work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan's funds were to be disbursed over five years and were earmarked to support only fieldwork for the books not for writing, editing, or production of the volumes. Curtis himself would receive no salary for the project, which was to last more than 20 years. 

 “People that are close to me call me Chief,” Curtis says as he cooks breakfast for Angeline.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what I call myself,” she asks and then introduces her boyfriend, Yiska (Kevin Loring): “They call him Chief.”

“Ah,” reasons Curtis, “a pet name?”

“No. Because he is one.”

“I know someone who looks like you,” Curtis tells Yiska.

“It’s OK — we all look the same,” responds Yiska.

Edward Curtis believed in his own romanticized, artistic vision of Native Americans.  Although his photographs are beautiful and fascinating, their subjects are “frozen” in time. Curtis was not an educated man, so he may have been incapable of providing a context for his photographs. In his ignorance, he simply condemns them to “vanish”.  

It is not until nearly the end of the play that he reveals that he cooked breakfast for some of his subjects and paid others because they were hungry. It is a reality that he is clearly not comfortable thinking about.  

In contrast, Angeline works in a profession that demands that she see, and maybe even understand.  On her last assignment she uncovers the bodies of three young children frozen in the snow of a Northern reservation. She is so traumatized and overcome by their beauty that it both paralyzes and depresses her.  How will she tell the story?  Will she describe how the father is a single parent and an alcoholic?  Or will she describe how he had run to a neighbour’s house for help because one of his children was sick and he has no telephone, no heat, no running water.  Angeline sees the context in which these deaths have occurred and asks herself what part she has played in this tragedy.  

The production is a real gem.  If you intended to only see one play this year, I would recommend this one! 

The Edward Curtis Project runs until April 21
Running time: 2 hours without intermission

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