It all began with a photograph.
While cleaning through her grandmother’s things, Lynn Nottage found a picture of her great-grandmother with a Barbadian. Nottage was aware that her great-grandmother was a seamstress who specialized in making intimate apparel for ladies, and of her connection to the Caribbean island of Barbados, but that picture made her curious.
Then began her journey of stitching together the story of seamstress Esther. She called it Intimate Apparel.
Chautauqua Theater Company is nearing the middle of its season, and Intimate Apparel opens a week from Saturday in Bratton Theater.
“Intimate Apparel is about filling in the story of people whose stories are not told,” said CTC Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch, who who is also directing this production. “Lynn is the poet and advocate of this untold story, and I am so excited to be working on a play that is going to join the canon of great American plays with the likes of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.”
Set in 1905 in New York City, intimate apparel tells the story of Esther, a lonely black seamstress who stitches corsets and other intimate apparel for the uptown ladies of the day and the downtown ladies of the night. She is a hard worker, one who craves love and companionship. Her life takes a turn when she begins corresponding with a Barbadian laborer working on the Panama Canal.
CTC alumni Tangela Large is set to play the leading role of Esther. Large was part of the conservatory in 2013 and is now back as a guest artist.
“Esther is relatable to any person with a skill and career,” Large said. “What happens when you want to have a personal life and seek love?”
She imagined herself playing Esther ever since her idol, Viola Davis, acted the role in 2004 at New York City’s Roundabout Theatre.
Large was last seen on the Bratton stage in 2013 playing Francine in Clybourne Park. She said she believes acting takes courage and intuition. As an actress, she has to be aware of her energy.
“My favorite scenes in the play are with Mr. Marks [an Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant], only because the energy is so minimal,” she said. “The play is essentially five different relationships and five different intimate spaces on stage. Crafting that journey will be interesting.”
Benesch said she was happy to work with Large again.
“She is one of the most intuitive and original actors I know,” Benesch said. “It is a very special thing, as a presenter of this play, to have an actress who knows how to navigate her internal dialogue with herself and be present with each of these characters.”
The production also features conservatory actors Matthew Baldiga, Kate Eastman, Kyle Vincent Terry and Whitney White, as well as guest artist Kathryn Hunter Williams, who frequents the stage as part of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
In many ways, Intimate Apparel is the absolute opposite of CTC’s season opener, Our Town, which was devoid of complicated sets and fancy costumes.
Alexis Distler is designing the sets, and she is keen on making the Bratton feel like a feminine space, or an enveloping, warm cocoon.
“There will be lots of fabric and gauzy curtains. Furniture will seamlessly glide on and off stage,” Distler said.
The sets will also include what the whole team calls the magic table. The magic table triples as a sewing machine, vanity kit and fabric table.
“When the stage is closed, it should look like a giant corset, and when you pull back the layers, you begin entering different rooms,” Benesch said.
While composer Justin Ellington is in the middle of weaving together a pop music playlist to put the audience in a turn-of-the-century New York City, the designers are trying to visually make the Bratton stage close into a corset at the end of Act 1.
Besides the actors, the corsets are the real stars of the show. The fashion sensibilities of 1905 New York City have been embroidered into the fabrics of this production. Costume designer Annie Kennedy said she had never dealt with this period before.
“The fine detailing of the fabrics, the silk, lace and corsets are what we will try to replicate for the cast,” Kennedy said.
With a week to the opening show, Benesch is excited to engage in Chautauquan dialogue about this play.
“For the Chautauquans, Intimate Apparel is a perfect blend of history, politics, ethics and great story.”