Mixed-media ‘Ophelia’ thrilling, heartbreaking

By Nona Nelson 981-3402 for the Roanoke Times.

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“Bellocq’s Ophelia”

Photos come to life in the Hollins Theatre production of “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” a play based on a collection of poems by Hollins alum and Pulitzer Prize-winner Natasha Trethewey. The play is also a feature of this year’s Marginal Arts Festival, which kicked off Thursday.

Trethewey’s lyrical prose was adapted for the stage by Ernest Zulia, T.J. Anderson and Lexi Mondot. The play is set in New Orleans’ Storyville, the city’s infamous legalized red light district.

At the beginning of the last century, Creole photographer E.J. Bellocq had a favorite muse, a woman Trethewey names Ophelia. The gaze of this biracial woman, beautiful and demure yet strong and confident, staring from the aging photos, inspired Trethewey to create an achingly tender and disturbing and sensual tale of survival and the dignity of women, particularly for women of color, despite their lack of social status.

The story is told through a series of journal entries and letters from Ophelia to her friend and teacher, Constance. Dance and music, jazz, blues and Southern spiritual gospel, and video — including projections of Trethewey’s poetry and Bellocq’s (pronounced Bell-lock) photographs — support the cast.

Sarah Ingel plays Ophelia, an educated daughter of a white man and a black woman, who came to New Orleans from Mississippi seeking honest work and a better life. Faced with no job opportunities (“No one needs a girl,” she hears repeatedly) and possible homelessness, she is taken in by Countess P (Lisa Gabourel), a kindly madam running an upscale brothel that features “black women in white skin.”

Ophelia writes home, shares what stories she can about her life — there are some “desires I cannot commit to paper” — and sends money to her mother, played by Helena Brown.

When she becomes the muse of the photographer, she begins to envision a new life — one of “freedom of memory; of the white space of forgetting” what she has had to do to survive. She becomes an apprentice photographer, buying a Kodak with her savings, and finds an artistic outlet and a measure of freedom behind the lens.

Adult themes and images are handled tastefully. The 90-minute production is thrilling, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. The synergy of music, dance and poetry is captivating and the performances are memorable.

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