There’s a storied history behind “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” the new play opening Wednesday at Hollins Theatre.
Timed to mark Black History Month, the play deals with the plight and ultimate salvation through art of a biracial woman in early 20th-century New Orleans. Hollins Theatre Director Ernie Zulia noted that plays dealing with such issues are rare.
The main character, Ophelia, has a black mother but can pass as white. Though she’s smart and independent, once she leaves the farm to go to New Orleans, the only work she can find is in the brothels, specifically because she is biracial. “She deals with racial discrimination and gender discrimination,” Zulia said.
Though Ophelia is fictional, a creation of Hollins alumna and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey, her story is rooted in real events.
In the early 1910s, a commercial photographer named E.J. Bellocq took portraits of prostitutes in New Orleans — some of the women nude, others clothed or in masks. In some photos, the faces are scratched out, though it’s unclear whether Bellocq deliberately damaged the negatives or if they were vandalized sometime afterward.
Legendary American photographer Lee Friedlander discovered the portraits in 1958, almost 10 years after Bellocq’s death. The Museum of Modern Art showed an exhibition in 1970 of prints Friedlander made from Bellocq’s negatives, eventually leading to the 1996 book “Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans,” in which essayist Susan Sontag wrote that the images are “touching, good natured, and respectful.”
Trethewey encountered Bellocq’s images. They inspired her to imagine Ophelia, a biracial woman who travels to New Orleans, ends up working in a Storyville brothel, meets Bellocq, becomes one of his models and learns photography, which helps her find a way out of her situation.