Journeying toward opportunity in pursuit of a dream is a central theme examined through race, immigration and women’s rights in “Intimate Apparel,” the Cal Poly Pomona Department of Theatre & New Dance’s first Mainstage show of its 2017-18 season.
“Intimate Apparel,” which opens at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 9 at University Theatre, is based on the life of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s great-grandmother, portrayed as Esther.
In the play, Nottage doesn’t shy away from or apologize for tackling issues such as race, immigration and the role of women in society. She instead directly addresses them and makes them the play’s reason to exist. A hint of a love triangle among Esther and the two male characters develops, but plays into the overall objective of the work.
“The play is ultimately about dreams and people who try to achieve them the best ways they can,” director Linda Bisesti says, “but I think it’s a timely play given the issues we’re dealing with in our society today, as well.”
Originally from North Carolina, main character Esther is an African-American seamstress living in a boarding house for women in Lower Manhattan during 1905. She makes her living sewing intimate apparel for clients who range from wealthy white women to African-American prostitutes, and Esther dreams of saving enough money to open a beauty parlor for African-American women.
“This play interested me because of its time period and the timeliness of these characters.” Bisesti says. “All of the characters are dealing with trying to create opportunities for themselves and achieve their dreams as best as they can.”
Esther wants to marry the right man, and through letter correspondences with a Barbadian immigrant working on the Panama Canal, she thinks he’s the one. Her heart, however, seems to become entangled with a Romanian-Jewish shopkeeper whose faith guides him toward shame for his reciprocal feelings.
Things shake up in the story when Esther finally meets George in New York, but who he really is contrasts with his letters, and he begins to upend Esther’s plans to achieve her dreams.
“George is not necessarily a bad guy,” Bisesti says of the character. “He’s just an opportunist trying to create a better life for himself any way he can. The ways he chooses to do that are suspect, but his ultimate goal is to get to America and get the opportunity to move up in life.
Other characters include the widowed African-American landlady Mrs. Dickson, who stands out as a businesswoman of color in the backdrop of Lower Manhattan during the early 1900s. She is joined by Mayme, an African-American woman who is a classical pianist and prostitute.
One of Esther’s clients, Mrs. Van Buren, is a white woman with sensibilities that society forbids her to openly express.
“Mrs. Van Buren is corseted in by society and tries to behave properly, but her sentiments are more bohemian,” Bisesti says of the character. “She loves Esther, physically and emotionally.”
With four female and two male roles, Bisesti says producing the play presented a unique opportunity for the women – and women of color, particularly – of the Department of Theatre and New Dance to play “really substantial roles.”
Beyond the quality of the play and issues it tackles, however, Bisesti said her decision to produce “Intimate Apparel” was motivated by her desire to see more female playwrights produced.
“Compared to men, few women in theatre see their work produced, and even fewer receive Tony Awards,” she said. “I’m always researching women playwrights because I don’t think they’re produced enough. Lynn Nottage is prolifically recognized, has won Pulitzer prizes and is a wonderful playwright.”
“Intimate Apparel” plays at Cal Poly Pomona’s University Theatre at 8 p.m. on Nov. 9, 11, 16, 17, 18 and at 2 p.m. on Nov. 19.
Tickets are $15 General Admission, $12 for Cal Poly Pomona alumni and $10 for all students, CPP staff and faculty, as well as senior citizens. Mainstage Season Passes, which grant patrons unlimited access to the department’s three Mainstage shows this season, are available for purchase through Nov. 19.
For more information and ticket purchases, visit www.bit.ly/cpptndtix or www.classcsupomona.tix.com.