The Edward Curtis Project was billed as a “modern-day picture story” which meant that I didn’t quite know what it expect. It is, in fact, a play about famous photographer Edward Curtis and how his “Vanishing Indian” series froze its subjects in time. Playwright Marie Clements asks how the pictures might look and what they might mean when seen from a non-white perspective.
Angie is a journalist having a breakdown after being confronted with a tragic story. She confronts the problem of how to document suffering in a sympathetic way without losing sight of the larger political context of aboriginal peoples living in poverty. As she struggles to maintain her identity and sense of history, legendary (and long-dead) photographer Edward Curtis enters her life. Their interactions are interesting but the point isn’t always clear and Angie’s many outbursts and convulsions are overwrought. Curtis also has a storyline of his own but it feels tacked on and doesn’t quite mesh with the contemporary narrative. The staging is inventive and effective, especially the projection of photographs.
The Edward Curtis Project is ambitious and full of intriguing threads but they are never completely pulled together.
Don’t miss the photographic exhibit in the lobby on which Clements worked with photographer Rita Leistner in order to reimagine Curtis’ work. In these moving photographs taken in communities all over North America, the “Indian” is no longer vanishing as each subject is allowed to be beautiful, complex and modern while also linked to traditions of the past. Here some of the questions provoked by the play (What does it cost an individual to be looked at and displayed?) are answered.
The Edward Curtis Project plays until January 31st at Presentation House in North Vancouver.