A Photograph: Lovers in Motion

by Ntozake Shange
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745

A Photograph: Lovers in Motion, first produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1977, is a more conventionally structured play than for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. The characters exist as individually developed entities rather than as the storytellers of the earlier play: They interact through dialogue and action and advance a plot. Two of the characters, Sean and Michael, are struggling artists; he is a photographer, she is a dancer. Earl and Nevada are both attorneys; Earl is also a longtime friend of Sean. The fifth character, Claire, is a model who poses for Sean’s photography.

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The plot concerns Sean’s relationships with the three women: Michael, Nevada, and Claire. All three are or have been his lovers; initially, he wants to maintain all these relationships, saying to Michael: “There are a number of women in my life/ who i plan to keep in my life.” Nevada and Michael, however, each want an exclusive relationship with Sean, a situation that results in several confrontations among the characters, including a physical fight between Michael and Claire. Sean, who has decided he is most attracted to Michael, attempts to persuade Earl to take up with Nevada. The final scene is a confrontation among all five characters, from which three withdraw, leaving Sean and Michael together.

Although the emotional entanglements are played out fairly realistically, Shange retains her commitment to poetic drama. In addition to realistic exchanges among the characters, the characters speak in lyrical passages describing their feelings and aspirations. Some of these lyrical sections are performed by a single character, alone on stage. Even when placed in the context of dialogue, the passages seem more like solo expressions than genuine exchanges. In the first scene, Sean has a long lyrical passage on his artistic hero, the nineteenth century French novelist Alexandre Dumas, to which Michael responds with a long poem on the image of a man she had heard of that has governed the choices she has made in her own relationships with men.

Sean and Michael also have poetic speeches concerning their feelings about and ambitions for their respective art forms, photography and dance. They describe these two arts in similar terms, as activities that enable them to fix a moment in time. Michael describes dance as allowing her to “be free in time/ a moment is mine always.” Sean says that “a photograph is like a fingerprint/ it stays & stays forever.”

A Photograph touches on a number of Shange’s major themes. The issues concerning relationships between African American women and men are addressed through the attitudes expressed by the characters, including Sean’s view that he can be involved with as many women as he chooses, Nevada’s desperate need for Sean, Claire’s indiscriminate seductiveness, and Michael’s attraction to a kind of man she knows to be dangerous. Shange raises racial issues through Nevada, who considers herself racially superior to the other characters, even though all are African Americans, because her slave ancestors were freed earlier than those of the other characters. She looks down on the others and refers to them in disparaging racial terms, yet she is attracted to the very qualities she disparages in Sean.

As artists, Sean and Michael must also address the issues confronted by Shange’s creative characters. Sean views his art as a means of satisfying personal needs. He sees the story of Alexandre Dumas’s rejection of his illegitimate son as an allegory for his own unsatisfying relationship with his father, and also for the position of the black man in American culture. He fantasizes that he will receive the Nobel Prize for photographs that reveal the truth of African American life. Michael questions his ambitions, suggesting that he is more interested in personal success than in the integrity of his art, or the lives of the human subjects he photographs.

The women in the play represent different options for Sean. Nevada is a snobbish, wealthy, professional woman who wants to support Sean’s career but looks down on his artistic lifestyle. Claire, the model, represents the sensual side of Sean’s work. His photographs of her are provocative, but they lack the seriousness of purpose to which he aspires. By choosing Michael as his true love, Sean chooses the one woman who understands and shares in the nature of the creative artist and who challenges Sean to remain faithful to his higher aspirations.

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