At a time when political discourse is bringing to the fore what it means to be a woman, African American or immigrant, the Dartmouth Department of Theater presents a poignant, deeply human look at what it was like to claim those identities 100 years ago.
Intimate Apparel, an acclaimed 2004 play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, runs Friday, November 4, through Sunday, November 13, in The Moore Theater of the Hopkins Center. The production is directed by guest director Tazewell Thompson, an international opera and theater director, playwright and teacher whose previous Dartmouth engagement was in 2013, as director of an uproarious production of Charles Mee’s Big Love.
Intimate beautifully evokes New York City in 1905. Esther, an immigrant from the South who has transformed herself into a brilliant seamstress, lives in a boarding house for women and sews intimate apparel—corsets and undergarments, then at their most elaborate—for clients who range from wealthy white patrons to prostitutes. We watch as her affections and fate become entwined with those of her clients, her protective landlady, the Hassidic immigrant cloth dealer who supplies her with sumptuous fabrics, and a Caribbean man who wins her heart.
The play won the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Outer Critics Circle Awards as well as broad critical acclaim, called by The New York Daily News “deeply moving” with “a delicacy and eloquence that seem absolutely right for the time she is depicting…New York has no richer play.” Variety praised it as “thoughtful, affecting…The play offers poignant commentary on an era when the cut and color of one’s dress—and of course, skin—determined whom one could and could not marry, sleep with, even talk to in public.”
While set 111 years ago, the play and its characters feel immediate and relevant, Thompson said. “One of the great themes in this play is, what do you do if you are unhappy with the cards life has dealt you? All the characters address this in different ways.”
The play also explores the likewise timeless themes of unrequited love, the clash of cultures and religion, and the marginalization of women and blacks. “Plays like this appeal most to me—the plays that reverberate with what’s going on now in the world,” Thompson said.
Of all Nottage’s plays, this one connects most directly to her own life, said Thompson, who recently directed Nottage’s Ruined at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre. Nottage’s late grandmother was a seamstress in turn-of-the-century New York City who married a Caribbean man—“and the marriage was not the greatest,” Thompson said. She also had a Jewish man in her life, although it’s not clear what their relationship was; and she was successful and thrifty enough to amass substantial savings. Around 2000, Nottage took it upon herself to clean out her late grandmother’s New York City brownstone. Her curiosity was piqued, and she dove into historical research in various New York research centers to reconstruct her grandmother’s world.
The six actors find the play resonates with their own family backgrounds, which they wrote about in mini-essays in the production’s playbill. “Dedication, inspiration, and love,” wrote Zahra Ruffin ’17, who plays Esther. “My mother—Jamaican-born and raised, with a work ethic that could move mountains and a heart that could hold thousands—moved to America for better opportunities and worked through the night to achieve her goals, following in the footsteps of my grandmother, who took in countless friends and strangers who needed a place to stay without complaint, and ultimately took to greener pastures in Canada to support her two daughters and those she loved back home. I never met my great-grandmother, and yet the stories of a quick wit and kind soul—vibrant enough to care for her 14 children selflessly—have carried through history to tales around the kitchen table. Working to better themselves and those around them, with so much love to give.”
Gabriel Jenkinson ’20, who plays George, likens that character’s story to his own father’s, who was “born in a village without wooden floors in rural Jamaica, and moved with his family to Toronto at a young age. Through his work in the film industry, he met my mother–a film producer from Milan, Italy–and they bridged their distance by emigrating together to Los Angeles.”
As the prostitute Mayme, Nashe Mutenda ’20 sings and plays piano on an original song written for the show by sound designer Fabian Obispo. Mayme is a formally trained pianist whose race bars her from a concert career. “When I was first cast, I could not imagine how I was possibly going to be able to play such a complicated role,” Mutenda wrote. “However, as we began to rehearse, I, as a musician, began to connect to my character through our mutual love for music.” She also identifies with the vivid mix of immigrant characters. “My father is from Zimbabwe and my mother is from Sri Lanka. Both their countries were not stable during their university years, so they came to Japan as university students. They met each other, got married and have been living in Japan for the past 26 years. So I am Zimbabwean-Sri Lankan-Japanese. (Talk about a mix!)”
Thompson has directed opera productions in Madrid, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Cape Town, Vancouver, San Francisco, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Detroit, Portland, Norfolk, Columbus, New Orleans, New Jersey and NYC among other cities. His production of Porgy and Bess was broadcast Live from Lincoln Center and received Emmy nominations for best director and best classical production.
In theater, he has directed 24 productions at Arena Stage and more than 75 productions (many world and American premieres) in major theaters across the country. As a playwright, his multiple-award-winning play Constant Star has had 14 national productions. His play Mary T. & Lizzy K., commissioned by Arena Stage, is the recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award with productions in DC and Minnesota.
During the 2015-16 season, in addition to Ruined, he directed the newly revised Philip Glass opera Appomattox and Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, both for Washington National Opera at Kennedy Center; the American premiere of Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica for Glimmerglass Festival and Kennedy Center; and the world premiere of the opera Blue Viola for UrbanArias. Future engagements include directing Great Expectations for Everyman Theatre, A Raisin in the Sun for Arena Stage and Handel’s opera Xerxes for Glimmerglass. Other schools at which he has taught and directed include NYU Grad, Juilliard, Tulane, University of Kansas at Lawrence, Syracuse University and Indiana University at Bloomington.