Stitches of History and Lingerie

UH's Intimate Apparel takes audiences on a sociopolitical romantic trip back to 1905 New York City.

By Doni Wilson February 18, 2016

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You might not think about fancy lingerie being created in a boarding house, but Lynn Nottage’s early 20th century drama, about an isolated African American woman who sews the most intimate of attire, attempts to make the audience think about what might be marginalized or overlooked—particularly when it comes to people.

Inspired by sorting through her grandmother’s belongings—including worn clothing, faded photos, and old magazines, the Brooklyn playwright researched turn of the century New York to fabricate an imagined history sprung from what little she knew of her own grandmother’s experiences as a seamstress.

The play focuses on Esther, the seamstress who has dreams of a life of her own—sewing negligees for her own life, not just others. After receiving a letter from a man who works on the Panama Canal, she romanticizes a life that is less lonely. Focusing on a black woman of limited means at the turn of the century is all part of Nottage's interest in writing about people “who have been erased from the public record,” whose voices are often unheard.

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As Sara Becker, head of BFA Acting and Assistant Professor of Voice and Shakespeare at the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of Houston notes, “Intimate Apparel grew out of playwright Lynn Nottage cleaning out her mother's house and coming across some mysterious old photographs. She dug into historical research, and got really interested in telling the story of people that are often anonymous. There's a great truth in art that the more specific and small a detail is, the more universal it becomes. This play invites us into the world of a quiet, diligent black woman in 1905, someone you may not notice as they walk into any room, but her journey hits all of us on a gut level.”

Such a play offers certain challenges for any director. “As a white woman, there are a variety of perspectives presented in this play that are not my perspective," Becker continues. "But as we gathered together a company of actors and designers, we realized we all had a piece of the experiences that Lynn writes about, and we could stitch together the play from there.”

Interestingly, every scene takes place in a bedroom, forcing the viewer to attend to questions about both physical and emotional intimacy. One can see what is possible—and impossible—regarding love. Both the sets and the costumes are central to the show, as Becker notes: “Some plays could just as easily be movies—with a matter-of-factness about their locations and clothing. But this play has theatricality; a dreaminess to it.” 

The small black box space, designed by Thomas Murphy, evokes a feeling of New York City with a minimal approach to the period.

“We develop actors to bring intelligence and skill to difficult, rich writing. Lynn Nottage is writing the plays that are going right into the contemporary canon. She’s writing the classics of the future.”

Feb 19–28. $10–20. University of Houston, 3351 Cullen Blvd. 713-743-2929.

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