This weekend, Everyman Theatre opens its second production of the season, Intimate Apparel, which has themes of class, culture, and circumstance. It centers on an African-American seamstress in turn of the century New York, who makes intimate garments for a variety of clients, and shares lingering affections with a Jewish fabric maker. Intimate Apparel’s playwright Lynn Nottage is the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for her work, and this is the third of her plays that Everyman has produced. Everyman Resident Company member Dawn Ursula, who plays the lead Esther, joined us to talk about preparing for the role, the power of live theater, and getting star struck.
This is your third leading role in a Lynn Nottage play at Everyman. Nottage is one of the most acclaimed playwrights around right now, as she won the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year. Are you starting to feel like you know her characters and her style?
That’s a good question. I think with some playwrights and their work, you might be able to say that. But I think what’s so brilliant about Lynn Nottage is how varied her plays are. [Last year’s prize] was the second Pulitzer that she’s won, she won for Ruined previously, and when I think about Ruined [about the plight of women in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo] versus Intimate Apparel, you could convince me, if I didn’t know better, that different playwrights wrote those plays. She can really craft something so uniquely that you can’t quite peg the way she’s going to channel the story. Although I could find and draw similarities between the characters and their struggles, they are such wonderfully different people. It’s a real joy to be able to start fresh and really begin, asking, “Ok, who is this person? How do they walk in the world?”
Even if they are so different, they seem like such complex characters.
And that’s a gift from the playwright to us as the actors that these characters are so wonderfully human. And when a playwright crafts something like that, you’re able to give it full body, and that’s what makes that much more of an impact on the audience. Human beings are such complex creatures, we can have such empathy and be so brilliant and yet so brutal. She knows how to draw that out.
Do you ever get star struck when you’re performing Nottage’s works because of who she is and the quality of what you’re preforming?
Yes, I can admit to that happening. I think it probably manifests itself in some good, positive nervousness. It’s like, ok, we’re doing a Lynn Nottage play, and we really can’t mess this up, ya’ll, because it’s her. (laughs) There’s a little bit of good intimidation and fear that we’re able to recognize and put into the work, and that drives us all that much more. It’s the same with an August Wilson piece—it’s of that caliber. We recognize how precious it is.
Intimate Apparel has a history in Baltimore. It had its premier at Center Stage in 2003, and Esther seems like a character who could have easily existed here. What’s your process been like researching and preparing to play her?
Luckily for us, we have a director, Tazewell Thompson, who has directed it before, and even the way he conducts rehearsals, he sets up what the world was like for us in Manhattan in 1905. The character of Esther is based off of some facts and information about a relative of Nottage's, and she puts pretty much all the information you need in the text—which also shows how amazing a playwright she is, because the character is clear because of the circumstances she is going through, what she says, what people say about her.
How do Lynn Nottage characters compare with others you’ve played in terms of how deeply you feel them?
I grow immensely and so quickly affectionate towards the characters that I play, and it’s easy with Lynn Nottage pieces. Even Mama Nadi, the madam in Ruined. I might have my issues with her, but I loved me some Mama Nadi. I will know when Intimate Apparel is done based on how long it takes Esther to leave me alone. Sometimes, when a show is closed and I’m ready to move on, a character will leave me quickly. But others might still be rattling around. With Mama Nadi, I had to ask her to go. I had to be like, “I love you, I’m so glad we got to tell your story, but you need to leave now.”
What’s it like to bring this play at this time in history? And what has really resonated about the story with you?
Hopefully one day this play is done and it’s just done for the beautiful story that it is and it doesn’t feel so timely. But it’s such an immigrant story— it’s about this new country where people want to come and work hard and make a life and be prosperous and fruitful and good and the hardships that they encounter. And then the discrimination and the classicism that occurs and the socio-economic barriers that come up. There are also challenges that these women are experiencing. I fully expect there to be lots of moments in the play when the women in the audience, and hopefully the men too, cringe at the fact that though it’s set in 1905, that incredibly sexist thing that’s happening on stage could happen in 2017. Hopefully, that gives us all pause.
In some ways, I’m sure that’s frustrating, but in other ways, that also serves as a connection point between you and the audience.
I do think about it that way. So much about what the gift of theater is for us to acknowledge and see ourselves where we are and where we want to go. We watch these real people on stage living these lives and it is for us as an audience to take a moment to reflect, to be empathetic, to make a discovery. That’s like a good bowl of chicken soup when you’re sick, and that’s one of the wonderful things that a play like this does.