In the Victorian era, genteel young ladies were expected to be proficient in those arts considered appropriately feminine , like sketching, singing and dancing. But photography, with its bulky, messy equipment, wasn’t thought a suitable hobby for a young lady. Alice Austen (1866-1952) was a bit of a rebel, though. The daughter of a well-t0-do Staten Island family, Austen discovered photography at age 10 and grew up to be one of the groundbreaking American female photographers of the 19th and early 20th century.
Looking for Lilith Theater Company celebrates Women’s History Month with the world premiere of playwright Robin Rice Lichtig’s ”Alice in Black and White.” The play dramatizes Austen’s life from childhood through adulthood, including her relationship with her partner of 50 years, Gertrude Tate, traveling back and forth through time between Alice’s life and the work of Oliver Jensen, the founder of American Heritage magazine who helped bring Austen’s photographs to light in his 1952 book “The Revolt of American Women.”
Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis, “Alice in Black and White” opens Thursday and runs through March 9 in the Kentucky Center’s MeX Theatre.
Lichtig, who lives in New York, went on a Staten Island hike with friends several years ago and was introduced to Austen’s home, Clear Comfort, now the Alice Austen House Museum. She became fascinated with the iconoclast who documented her entire life and the world around her.
“Basically, she wants to preserve life. And so she has all these photographs of her girlfriends, what they’re doing. It’s a record of life, and since she was taking photographs her entire life, it covers a great span of time,” says Lichtig.
Austen’s photos chronicled her girlhood, her social life and friends, and her home life with Tate. But Lichtig says many are valuable historical documents, too, because Alice branched out to photograph life on the streets of Manhattan, the Chicago World’s Fair and other public events.
“During the war, she took battleships going in and out of the harbor,” says Lichtig. “When the immigrants were first coming into Ellis Island, the boats would be checked for smallpox and diseases and people, immigrants would be sent to quarantine islands. Alice actually went to these islands and took pictures of those people.”
Dramatizing the life of a person from recent history carries certain responsibilities, like trying to reconcile their choices inside an understandable narrative arc.
“You have to get inside the head of someone like her. For instance, when she started having financial troubles, why didn’t she sell her photographs? She didn’t think of them as art,” she says. “It’s so hard to understand how someone thinks from a different time. “
But Lichtig hopes her play gets Alice right. “Because I care for her,” she says. “I hope everybody who sees it loves her, too.”