Intimate Apparel, by American playwright Lynn Nottage, is a story about a lonely seamstress in 1905 New York City, detailing the bonds she makes with her kaleidoscope of clients.
This play has continued to make an impact on audiences worldwide since its debut in 2003.
The Writer’s Bloc spoke with actress Summer Brown and costume designer Marci Rodgers, a Chicago native, to get a look at the framework of the play taking over The Clarice Performing Arts Center until Oct. 17.
First, we spoke to Summer Brown, who plays Esther, the main character.
Q: Who is Esther?
“Esther is an African-American seamstress who lives in New York in 1905. She sews intimate apparel lady undergarments for all women–from [the] high-society ladies on 5th avenue to the poor prostitutes. She has very close relationships with her clientele because she has to be very intimate with their bodies, forming them and whatnot. Through this, a some sort of kinship forms. She just turned 35 and this is sort of a rough time for her because she realizes that her life isn’t exactly how she imagined it would be. She’s still living in the rooming house that she’s been living in since she came to New York at 17. She’s not married, not seeing anybody so she is kind of at that tough point where she realizes that maybe this is the rest of her life. She begins to receive letters from a man named George who is working on the Panama Canal and they begin a correspondence.”
Q: As a black woman in New York in 1905, what does she encounter in concern of racial prejudice, sexism?
“I really love how the way playwright [Lynn Nottage] crafted the play because with each of the relationships that she has with the characters, she forms a connection with each of them but with each relationship there’s this line—a class line, a gender line or a racial line that you can’t cross.”
Q: This play is set 110 years ago, so how do you connect with your character as well as the other characters, since there’s a strong female presence—four women and two men in the entire play?
“We did a lot of historical research because it’s imperative to understand the historical context of the play, it’s post Civil War, turn of the century. All of the characters have come to New York, none of them were born in New York. Esther herself is from North Carolina. All of them are coming here for opportunity. The characters are very relatable. I found myself very connected to Esther, and I hope the audience will as well. At the core, the person that she is is a very relatable character. Lynn Nottage has created a great foundation in all the characters to creating the role.”
Q: Intimate Apparel has been playing since 2003, and it’s still being shown today, so there must be something powerful behind it?
“Definitely. What draws me to this play is the exploring these six characters that are in this huge city of New York and there’s such an anonymity that comes from that. The playwright just takes this close, intimate personal look at each character and gives them a story, gives them life. Grant comes from Ellis Island and you get Mr. Marks’ story, you get Esther as a black woman coming up North and Mayme’s story, a beautiful talented musician but yet stuck being a prostitute in New York.”
Q: The cast of the play is prominently women of color. How do you think women today will see the play? What are they going to take away from it?
“It’s very inspiring. For me, if I was going to see this play. It’s a black female playwright, it’s a black female protagonist, half of the cast is black and I feel like the narrative of black women can be so lost in theatre and it’s not very well represented at all. It’s rare to find and that’s why I am so thankful in playing this role. It’s completely centered around black women. Esther as a character who is just so admirable and you see her resiliency and it reflects a ot of the issues that are still contemporary today of women’s expectations and the limitations for women of color.”
Then we spoke with Marci Rodgers, costume designer for Intimate Apparel.
Q: What has been the process for you with the costumes?
“Creatively, trying to connect the two worlds between costume design and what the playwright intended for Esther because she is a seamstress based in the 1900s making intimate apparel even though it sounds cliche for her clients Mrs. Van Buren and best friend Mayme. So a lot of historical research like the evolution of corsets. Although it’s kind of like in this time warp of the 1900’s, bringing it to life in color in the renderings. I had a kimono made as well as the wedding gown which is the big to-do because Esther wants to get married. From fabric shopping, to the mock-up fittings…to the costumes being cut to the fittings, now it being onstage, it’s magical. It started off as an idea on paper and now it’s this body in this costume.”
Q: Which costume for you was the most fun and enjoyable to make?
“The corsets are fun. The one I hold dearest to my heart is the wedding gown. Every woman so to speak, dreams of being married, is part of the American Dream, no matter what race you are. it’s a symbol of purity as well.”
Q: How did you convey Esther’s loneliness through her attire?
“Her everyday wear, is very … conservative may not be a good word. I guess we can say conservative like she has little nuances in her costume that would inform that she could be a seamstress be it the lace on her shirt waist or the pin she wears around it. Also the color because back then, African-Americans didn’t wear a lot of color because it was just not available to them. They wore the darker colors, they didn’t wear the vibrant ones.”
Q: The main focus of the play is the relationship between the women. Is there a unifying piece in their costumes?
“There are twin corsets between Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren. They come onstage with the same corset. That was partly done on Esther’s part on purpose because gives it to Mrs. Van Buren first and later on in the play you see Mayme with it on.”
Q: Over the summer you worked with [Academy Award nominated costume designer] Ruth Carter. What sort of things did you learn that translated to your work in Intimate Apparel?
“This summer I worked with her on a movie in Chicago and I think training here and just what I’ve learned up until that point helped me navigate through the process of working with another designer so given a task and doing it just so that it helps the process move faster. Film is very different from theatre though and it moves faster.”
Q: What do you want people to notice in the shows? What do you want them to pinpoint in the designs?
“Based off the story, nobody should walk away from it not connecting with someone or some part of the play, be it the experience they had or they may have heard of costumes to me just underscore why people wear what they wear. Like, what Mrs. Van Buren would wear, Mrs. Dickson wouldn’t have been able to afford it because she was middle-class black America, she wasn’t middle-class white America, it’s two different worlds. The visuals sensory and imagery in the costumes and the set and lighting, they should all go together.”
Featured Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of The Clarice.
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Karla Casique is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at email@example.com.