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Alice In Black And White

I'm gonna make pictures of everything in my life and put them where I can take them out and look at what's mine any time I want.— Alice Austen as she excitedly inspects the big camera bought by her uncle during a trip abroad.
Alice In Black And White
L-R: Jennifer Thalman Kepler and Laura Ellis (Photo by Holly Stone)
The picture eleven-year-old Alice Austen wanted to capture most with the big camera her uncle brought back to Staten Island from Germany was of her father. That picture never materialized. The father's desertion of her and her mother was permanent. But so was her love affair with the camera.

By the time she was eighteen, Alice had mastered all that huge camera's complexities — judging lighting, time exposure and developing the heavy glass plates. She became one of America's earliest and most prolific female photographers (some 8,000 images).

Yet Alice always considered herself an amateur since she never received payment. According to the curators of the family's Staten Island Home that's now a museum, she did send some 150 prints to the Library of Congress to be copyrighted, and several of those were printed as postcards for her own personal use, as was a small portfolio of her New York Street scenes.

Austen's amateur status was in keeping with Victorian women's exclusion from professional careers as well as the fact that John Austen, the grandfather who raised her was rich. Though he was loving and supportive, he did want her to embrace tradition and carry on the family name by marrying and having children. But despite her beloved grandfather and very proper mother's wishes, Alice put her love affair with the camera first. And when another passion came her way she embraced that as well, making her a double pioneer: As a woman openly and seriously committing herself to photo journalism and living with another woman.

In her biographical play, Alice in Black and White, currently having a brief run at 59E59 Theater's Theater C under the auspices of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, Robin Rice has dramatized the story of Alice Austen's remarkable yet sad life (1866-1952). It's certainly a story that fits the producing company's mission of creating productions that examine history and today's world through women's perspective and lifting up unheard voices."

Rice has structured her play to intersperse the biographical highlights in around the aptly named Clear Comfort Staten Island estate between 1876 to 1950, with scenes the year before her death at the Staten Island Historical Society. The alternating dual storytelling features sixteen characters, with several of the seven actors playing multiple roles.

It's an ambitious plan to take us through the highs and lows of Alice's life, and also bring in the story of how Oliver Jensen came to discover and include many of her pakced away in a trunk photos in his book The Revolt of American Women (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1952). The forward jumps of the main plot line establish at what point and place in the story we are at are clear enough. However, it all comes off more like an outline for would probably work better as a filmed documentary than this play. Unfortunately, the interspersed scenes that try to add a bit of suspense courtesy of Oliver Jensen's quest for Alice and her photos are more intrusive than smoothly or interestingly integrated — which isn't helped by Trina Fischer's shrill museum docent and Joseph Hatfield's portrayal of Oliver Jensen.

In fairness to director Kathi E. B. Ellis, it's challenging to move actors and props on and off this tiny stage. And, while it's a nice touch to post large printouts of Alice's photos, the constraints of the theater necessitated placing them too high up tor the audience to really appreciate.

As for the actress playing the main role, Jennifer Thalman Kepler does her best to take Alice from a wildly enthusiastic youngster to old age, but it's only during her late in the play's scenes with her beloved Gertrude (Laura Ellis) that she makes a strong impression.

While Alice In Black and White is a flawed play, it does introduce us to a little-known game changer, both in terms of women's personal and professional histories. And Ms. Rice did add a feel good postscript to Alice's ultimately depressing finale. Though she didn't get to end her life in her beloved Clear Comfort, she has been given an afterlife in that home's metamorphoses into a museum honoring her work and spirit.

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. Alice In Black And White
Written by Robin Rice
Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Cast: Megan Adair (Violet/Harry/Grace/Mandia), Shannon Woolley Allison (Mother/Street Person/Attendant), Laura Ellis (Gertrude/Julia), Trina Fischer (Sally), Joseph Hatfield (Oliver), Ted Lesley (Grandather/James/Rogers Withrop/City Official), Jennifer Thalman Kepler (Alice)
Scene & Projection Design: Christé Lunsford
Lighting Design: Tom Willis
Costume Design: Lindsay Chamberlin
Sound design/composer: Nathan Rob
Stage Manager:Lauren Camargo.
Running time: 2 hours 5 mins, including intermission
From 8/03/16, opening 8/07/16; closing 8/14/16.
Tuesday - Thursday at 7:30 PM; Friday and Saturday at 8:30 PM; and Sunday at 3:30 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/07/16 press preview

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