Dorset opens Summer Season with 'Intimate Apparel'

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DORSET >> Esther, a 35-year-old seamstress, lives at a boarding house in New York City in 1905. She sews "intimate apparel" for a range of customers, some wealthy, others less so.

Esther lives frugally, stockpiling her earnings away in hopes of opening a beauty parlor for black women.

One by one, the other residents of the boarding house find partners and move on. Not Esther. Then a man living and working in Panama starts a correspondence with her. One thing leads to another and another — and then to a proposal of marriage from a man she has never met.

Meanwhile, she has a relationship of a different kind with a Jewish shopkeeper who sells her work and lives in an arranged marriage without passion. He and Esther come from different worlds. She is black, and love between them would face stiff challenges — in 1905, in many states, their marriage would be illegal. But they may have more than a business relationship.

The economics of the times, racial and cultural restrictions, frustration and gender stereotypes force women and men into certain roles in the Dorset Theatre Festival's upcoming production of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" — or, said Elain Graham as Mrs. Dickson, owner of the boarding house where Esther lives, it's really a new twist on the Shakespearian drama "Love's Labors Lost."

"Intimate Apparel" will kick off DTF's summer season Thursday, June 25.

"It's about a slice of African-American life at the turn of the century that you don't often hear about," Graham said.

Even the title confers a metaphorical layer — the idea that corsets and other intimate apparel served to limit women's choices and kept them from "having a say in their own life," Graham said.

"Even though it's set in 1905, it plays into life right now," she said, talking about the racial and religious taboos the drama explores. "People will identify with the themes and the characters; it's just a new way of seeing it. The heart wants what it wants, but because of the mores, and social standing, it can't happen."

The play looks at a moment of flux in American life, when rapid industrialization and wholesale immigration from Europe and within America was upending 19th-century social structures. African-Americans escaping the Jim Crow south and the heritage of slavery were competing for manual laboring jobs with recent immigrants equally determined to carve out a better life for themselves.

The competition made it in many ways harder for African-American men than women to succeed. The play explores the economics of the times, the social upheaval and how people found their own paths through life, said Dina Janis, artistic director of the Dorset Theatre Festival.

It's the kind of play she likes to bring to a regional theater, she said. It's an entertaining and thought-provoking show that might not often make it to venues far from Broadway or major urban theaters.

Plays she has produced at Dorset that audiences seemed to enjoy often hold something important and moving at the same time, she said, and this one makes her care about the characters.

Nottage is an accomplished playwright with a growing string of critically successful works to her credit. "Intimate Apparel" premiered in 2003 in Baltimore. "Ruined," a play about Congolese women caught in a civil war zone, won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009. "Fabulation" won an Obie Award and "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" won two NAACP Theatre Awards. She also received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a playwright in mid-career in 2004. When not writing plays, she teaches as an associate professor of theater at Columbia University and a lecturer in play writing at Yale.

"This is one for me is from the heart," Janis said. "I try to do one of those every season at least. It's the subject matter, the issues it raises for me as a woman, the African-American experience, the Jewish-American experience — just the American experience, through Lynn Nottage's lens."


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