I first saw a staged reading of Lesley Ewen's Camera Obscura (hungry ghosts) as part of frank theatre's Clean Sheets series that accompanied the Q2Q Conference at SFU Woodward's in July 2016. Two years later it is now receiving its world premiere at the Roundhouse in a production directed by Ewen and co-presented by the frank and the Queer Arts Festival. But, as Ewen recounts in her program notes, the genesis for the play really began 16 years ago, when after seeing a retrospective of Vancouver-based visual artist Paul Wong's work at the Vancouver Art Gallery she conceived the broad outlines of the play. That it has taken so long for the work to be produced has nothing to do with Ewen's working methods, nor with the quality of her writing and artistic vision; it mostly speaks to how risk-averse are most theatre companies in this country.
Camera Obscura is a fictionalized account of Wong's creative and quasi-romantic relationship with Kenneth Fletcher, and in particular their collaboration on the photographic and video project Murder Research (1977). Based on the actual murder of a First Nations man in the alley behind Wong's house, Wong and Fletcher combined documentation of the crime scene and images of the victim's body taken from the coroner's office with a dramatization of their interpretation of the story of the murder. At once a critique of our obsession with sensationalized depictions of murder and violence and an expose of the otherwise invisible Indigenous lives of many of the victims of that violence, the work was exhibited at the Western Front, toured widely, and also yielded a book. With Wong's blessing, Ewen has used this background material to investigate the ethics of turning someone else's real-life pain into art, as well as the psychological toll that such a process presumably took on Fletcher, who, after struggling with mental illness, committed suicide a year after the creation of Murder Research.
Ewen has constructed Camera Obscura as a memory play. Brandon (Jeff Ho) is an acclaimed artist who is celebrating a career retrospective. In voiceover an unseen curator (Ewen) informs us of the provocative subject matter of his work, as well as its formalist concerns, including blurring the lines between art and life. But the voices and images behind one particular work haunt Brandon and, with the aid of some imaginative video projections by Sammy Chien, we are pulled back along with Brandon to the moment of its inception. Thereafter, the play proceeds along two intersecting lines, both of which have at their heart an ethical conundrum that Ewen wishes to both foreground and poke at. On the one hand there is the politics of non-Indigenous folks trading in and seeking to make meaningful the perceived misery of the lives of Indigenous peoples. At the same time, there is the question of what constitutes the limits of a personal and professional relationship in which everything--including suicidal ideation--is treated as a performance. However, dramatically speaking these two narrative lines receive unequal weight, with Ewen's focus tilting--perhaps inevitably--towards the domestic drama of Brandon's relationship with Kevin (Julien Galipeau), at the expense of fleshing out the story of the murdered First Nations man (played by Braiden Houle) who becomes the subject of their work.
To be sure, there is a bravura scene in which Houle rounds on Kevin for his presumption in thinking his life was without meaning before he and Brandon immortalized him in an artwork. But for the most part his character remains a mute witness to his own exploitation, in addition to physically carrying the bodies of the other characters at two different moments in the play. I understand how the voicelessness of Indigenous peoples is part of Ewen's critique of colonialism, but for me this representational silence is problematically counterposed by the over-contextualization of the ethics of Brandon's art practice. The use of voiceover is extensive throughout the play, and the cooly dispassionate appraisal of Brandon's contributions to artmaking is meant to set up what we imagine to be on the walls of the gallery's white cube and the messy "reality" that we are actually seeing in the black box of the theatre as the subject of a debate with life and death stakes. But in refusing to take sides in this debate, Ewen's play necessarily ends up reaffirming the representational over the material. Indeed, we could say that Wong's original artwork is now doubly framed.
Raising such questions is what makes Camera Obscura such an important work. It needs to be seen--and talked about.