Photography can be a way to control reality. By stealing an instant from the ungoverned stream of time, photographers impose order on flux. And by artfully posing their subjects, they can transform a living, changing person into a static image of their own imagining.
In Jackie Sibblies Drury’s trenchant new play Really — now at Abrons Arts Center in a gorgeous production by Richard Maxwell — a photographer’s studio becomes the arena for a battle over the meaning of the past. Two archetypal figures called only Girlfriend (Kaneza Schaal) and Mother (Elaine Davis) meet in the former atelier of Calvin (Tavish Miller), a photographer, to sort through their memories amid the detritus of his career. (It’s unclear what happened to him, but he appears to be dead, perhaps by his own hand.) Mother sits for a series of portraits as Girlfriend transforms herself from muse into artist. Each fights to preserve her own view of the deceased: He has masterworks to preserve his legacy, while they have only memories.
As they relive the past, the past lives again. Calvin appears, confirming and sometimes contradicting their memories of him. We see things that the two women can’t or won’t describe to each other, and we learn that Calvin was a bully who insisted, often through his camera, that the world conform to his vision.
Maxwell’s direction matches form to content. His stage images are as crisply composed as photographs, but he also emphasizes theatrical dimensions: muddling memory and reality, arranging collisions of past and present. Mother cuddles Calvin’s childhood self, while Girlfriend embraces him romantically. The director’s trademark understatement — the actors deliver their text with studied neutrality — heightens this photographic sense, the calm suggesting a throbbing undercurrent of feeling.
It’s no accident that the absent auteur was a white man and Girlfriend is a black woman. Drury’s tale is as much about historical agency as it is about the artistic kind. Why are some people subjects, shaping the world according to their imaginations, while others are objects, obliged to compose themselves into material for the lens?
In taking her own photos, Girlfriend attempts to recover her own subjectivity. But as she does, she becomes dubious about art itself. Why should she “pollute” the world, she asks, by forcing her perspective on it? Isn’t it better to simply disappear, as billions of unheralded lives did before us?
Drury has explored these questions before, from a different angle. In her brilliant 2012 play We Are Proud to Present a Presentation…, she asked what we hope to find when we revive history’s traumas in the theater. Are we trying to contain the pain, or to touch its raw core? Can that even be accomplished by something as flimsy as art? Here, she asks how we can make art when the ethics of art-making appear uncannily similar to the terrible ethics of history.
With Really, Drury and Maxwell’s fertile collaboration turns the theater itself into the answer to photography’s egotism. It is communitarian, not isolating; evanescent, not material. Theater cooperates with time; it doesn’t seek to own it. It celebrates polyphony, not the singular genius. And it disappears when it’s done, leaving room for new visions.
By Jackie Sibblies Drury
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street