Rhiana Yazzie’s new play looks at Surrealist Model who shares her Face
August 27, 2010
By Sheila Regan
10 years ago, Navajo playwright Rhiana Yazzie received a postcard from a friend that depicted a group of surrealist artists having a picnic in a park. The Lee Miller photograph included two women with bare breasts, one of whom was smiling exhuberantly at the camera. Yazzie read the back of the postcard, where her friend wrote “that well ventilated woman looks like you.”
“At first I was like ‘what?’ Yazzie recalled in an interview, but as she looked at the postcard, Yazzie did see herself in the woman, Adrienne Fidelin (or Ady, for short). Yazzie couldn’t understand why this woman, who was from the island of Guadalupe, could look so much like herself, a Navajo woman.
Yazzie’s curiosity was sparked. Who was that woman in the picture, and how could she look so remarkably like Yazzie? She started googling Fidelen, but didn’t get many answers, as there was very little information about her available on the web at the time. “I became obsessed about that photo,” Yazzie said.
Fidelin was part of a tight circle of surrealist artists that included Pablo Picasso, Lee Miller, Man Ray, Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst and others. Yet for some reason, Fidelin, who was from the Island of Guadelupe and was the only person of color in the group, has not been written about at all.
She began researching Fidelen, and also the group of surrealist artists of which Fidelin was a part. Yazzie learned that Fidelin met Man Ray in 1936 in Paris while she was dancing with a French Dance troup. The two became lovers and Fidelin modeled for him for a number of years.
One of the photographs Man Ray took of Fidelin ended up in an issue of Harper’s Bazaar in 1937. The New York Times names her the first black model to appear in a major fashion magazine. After splitting with Ray in 1940, Fidelin fled France during the Nazi occupation.
Yazzie said that she was intrigued by Fidelin’s contrast to the other models of that period. Besides obviously her skin color, Fidelin always smiled at the camera, and didn’t have they typical languid, tortured and disinterested look that the other models presented. “She refuses to give up a piece of herself,” Yazzie said. “She refuses to not be aware she is being photographed.”
Fidelin’s story stuck with Yazzie for several years until the summer of 2007 when she was at a party at the home of Meena Natarajan and Dipankar Mukherjee, the directors at Pangea World Theater. Yazzie spoke to Natarajan about the idea for a script about Fidelin, and Natarajan told Yazzie that Pangea would commission the script. “A year later,” Yazzie said, “I had written the play.”
Pangea commissioned the script in 2008 as part of its Alternate Visions Festival. The festival involves emerging playwrights spending an extended period of time writing and developing new plays with dramaturgical resources, travel and research funding, and production support. Past readings have included Curiosities by Heid Erdrich and Under the Bridge by A-yia Thoj and Saychay Thor. “The writer is always the center point of the conversation,” Pangea’s Artistic Director Dipankar Mukherjee said. “We try to support them with whatever they need during the development process.”
An aspect of Yazzie’s original play proposal that struck Mukherjee was the fact that Fidelin had been largely ignored by writings about the surrealist movement. “Everyone has been written about except besides Ady,” Mukherjee said. “She is completely erased, she’s not mentioned.”
Since Yazzie began working on the script, Ady has also been given readings and workshops at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis and also the Public Theater in New York City. Pangea’s full production of the show ran for the month of July at the Playwright’s Center. The play starred Avia Bushyhead and Leah Nelson and was directed by Hayley Finn.
In the play Ady, there are two women who play 18 different characters, telling the story of Fidelin herself, and a Navajo woman who learns about herself by learning about Fidelin. Yazzie said that she tried to create excellent roles for actresses of color, and in particular Native American actresses. Both actresses get to shine as they jump from one character to the next, using movement and voice to distinguish the different people in the stories of the two women.
Yazzie, originally from Albuquerque, NM, was awarded the Playwright’s Center Jerome Fellowship this year for the second time since 2006. Her work has been seen at SteppingStone Theatre for Youth Development, Teatro del Pueblo, Mixed Blood Theatre, and La Jolla Playhouse among others. She also also has recently started her own theater company called New Native Theatre (http://newnativetheatre.org/) which seeks to nurture Native artists, connect to the community and “heal the wounds in the colonial narrative and in Native America’s personal stories through theatre,” according to its website.