Arts & Culture / Mosaic / Theater / May 20, 2009

The story of an independent female seamstress

Intimate Apparel, written by Lynn Nottage, is a play that brings to life “a lost memory that no one took the time to humanize,” said Kelly Hogan, a visiting instructor of theatre and the show’s director. Set in New York in 1905, the play centers around Esther, an African American seamstress who creates lingerie for women of all social classes, from prostitutes to the wealthy. Although a semi-biographical piece (Nottage’s grandmother was also a seamstress), the writer based much of the play on people in turn-of-the-century photographs.

“We wonder what their experiences are, but they’ve been eclipsed,” said Hogan. “You have to build the stories of the characters in the play.”

Esther’s story is that of an African American woman at the turn of the century who is not only independent, but unmarried, something nearly unheard of at the time. Although Esther does desire to be a wife and mother, it is, “something that she wants on her own terms,” said Hogan. “She’s in service to others even while being a woman of her own means, and she’s struggling to have those things come together.”

In addition to examining the evolution of personal identities, the play also explores how people perceive others around them. Esther interacts with and decides to wed her husband, George, solely on the basis of the letters that pass between them. However, both of the characters are illiterate, forced to rely on others to read and write their correspondence. George is played by two different actors — the first representing the man Esther imagines in her head, reading his letters out loud, and the second being his actual, flesh-and-blood self.

“It addresses how we create the people we come to love without really knowing who they are,” said Hogan. The work features heavy use of shadows and silhouettes to communicate varying perceptions of personality.

Hogan chose to produce this play in order, “to make visible Knox’s wealth of talent that rarely has been seen in a main stage capacity.” She stated that it was a “definitive choice to seize the opportunity to give students of color an on-stage presence,” rather than merely employing color-blind casting. Hogan also noted that she likes to direct plays by women playwrights and that Nottage, who recently won the Pulitzer for her most recent work, Ruined, is currently one of the most produced dramatists in America.

The play features six speaking roles, but Hogan also cast four additional actors. As “Esther’s shadow selves,” their role is to put into movement the things about herself that Esther cannot express. Hogan was enthusiastic about their role in the production.

“It’s been a great way to bring in dancers who wouldn’t normally audition for a theatrical production,” she said. “They don’t have lines, but they have the same investment.”

The play also incorporates diversity in its casting in terms of experience. The actors’ knowledge ranges from no college acting experience to theater majors who have been in multiple productions. Hogan, although acknowledging that working with such varied skill levels has been a challenge, also viewed it as one of the work’s greatest strengths.

“They have learned so much — they took a crash course in acting and are doing amazing, transformational work,” she said. “I’m learning from it, too.”

Hogan viewed this transition into acting as being made easier by the “amazing chemistry,” between the cast members. For nearly the entire first week of rehearsal, all of the actors, even the “shadow selves,” engaged in “table talks” to read and discuss the play amongst themselves.

“That was rewarding,” said Hogan. “We had a chance to have an intensive experience with the play, and we developed an intense ownership of it. The ensemble happened right out of the gate.”

Hogan also praised those working on the technical aspects of the play.

“It’s been a challenge costume-wise,” she said. “We have to make all these beautiful corsets, and the strength of the costume shop has allowed us to do that.”

The costumes and scenery, which feature both student and faculty designs, are based on the grainy, sepia tones present in older photographs. The bits of color bursting through are all a result of Esther’s artistry, her unexpected sides emerging slowly.

Intimate Apparel is a work that acknowledges America as a place that is “created and made from your own intentions,” said Hogan.

“It’s a dream of what we’d like it to become, tempered by the restrictions of class and gender. Even though it claims to be a melting pot, these things are unspoken.”

Esther, a strong and colorful character, is just the person to challenge those restrictions.

Intimate Apparel opened last night in Harbach Theatre and will be showing nightly at 7:30 through Saturday, May 23. Each performance will feature a post-show discussion, and Saturday’s show will be interpreted in American Sign Language.

Katy Sutcliffe

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