THE EDWARD CURTIS PROJECT
It was fascinating for me to see Bruce Ruddell’s Beyond Eden and Marie Clements’ The Edward Curtis Project on successive nights. Both new plays, presented as part of the Cultural Olympiad, revisit contentious non-aboriginals who figured importantly in the formal construction of BC First Nations culture. Beyond Eden fictionalizes anthropologist Wilson Duff, who in 1957 brought fabulous Haida memorial poles from their original sites in aboriginal villages on Haida Gwaii to urban Canadian museums and established them as art objects. Photographer Curtis, a half-century earlier, posed Native subjects in exotic garb to document what he was sure were “dying races.” His photographs of BC aboriginals—and his film, The Land of the Headhunters—established iconic images of aboriginal people within the Canadian imaginary.
In both plays aboriginal characters challenge the validity of these non-aboriginal reconstructions of Native culture. In both, the white protagonist has a wife he neglects in his obsession with the ethnic Otherness that is so much more compelling for him than a mere woman. And both plays center on a character in the process of a serious breakdown. As well, both productions rely heavily on magical projections. Stylistically, they are otherwise radically different: Beyond Eden a large-scale, big-budget musical spectacle entertainment; The Curtis Project an intimate, somewhat abstract character study.
The central character here is a journalist named Angeline (played brilliantly by Tamara Podemski), a mixed-race child of Dene and Russian parents, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We never really learn why she is so depressed, unable to find solace in her loyal boyfriend (Kevin Loring) and made even crazier by her lighter-skinned, professionally successful sister (Kathleen Duborg). But one event has pushed her right to the edge. Gone to the North to do a happy feature about Native children, she ended up covering the story of the deaths of three Native kids left to freeze in the snow by their drunken father. Horrified and guilt-ridden, she identifies with both the father and the children (“we all have to own a little piece of it”). And when her sister tries to help by giving her a coffee-table book of Curtis’ beautiful photos, Angeline identifies herself with “the vanishing Indian” and begins hallucinating Curtis (Stephen E. Miller), who appears in her apartment in turn-of-the-century garb, with a slightly sleazy, folksy charm, cooking meals for her in her kitchen.
Angeline’s scenes alternate with scenes of Curtis speaking before a large audience at Carnegie Hall in 1911, where he too seems to be on the verge of a breakdown, and scenes of him with his unhappy wife (Duborg again). With Angeline he’s rather folksy and matter-of-fact, never seemingly bothered by her challenges to his photographic constructions of the Native subject. He “preserved forever” the Sun Dance and other First Nations rituals recorded in his photos, he insists self-assuredly. But the domestic and Carnegie Hall scenes suggest that something about his immersion in the life of “beautiful, poetic, mysterious ... primitive man,” as he describes the aboriginal, has had a profound, even shattering effect on him. Typical of Clements’ oblique, poetic playwriting, there are no easy explanations or resolutions to the questions and issues she poses in the play. They remain fascinating and frustrating.
Co-directed by Clements and Brenda Leadley on the tiny Presentation House stage, the play has a somewhat formal, static quality in keeping with the style of Curtis’ photos, which we see blown up behind him in the Carnegie Hall scenes. On a large scale (in projections by the inimitable Tim Matheson) they are even more visually stunning than usual, whatever one might think of the political attitudes they represent. But Clements has also teamed up with photo-journalist Rita Leistner, whose own photographs, many of family groups, are projected on a smaller scale but in great quantities onto a scrim in front of the actors and at the same time made to appear somehow floating in space behind and around them in a magical effect. (There is also a wonderful Leistner photo exhibition of Northern aboriginal subjects in the next room at Presentation House, ironizing on Curtis’ posed pictures.)
As its title suggests, this is a work in progress, a project that has only begun to explore the ways Curtis’ art continues to resonate in the contemporary psyche , aboriginal or not.