Black History Month: An intimate and ‘quintessentially American Story’
By Lynn Nottage
Presented by 4th Wall Theatre
Feb. 22, 23, 24
Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts
10 Durand Road, Maplewood
For tickets, 973-996-8484; email@example.com
By GWEN OREL
A black woman sews corsets.
Giggles with a white client. Sings with a black one. Buys fabric from a Hasidic merchant, while suppressing her feelings for him.
Answers letters from a black worker in Panama.
It’s 1905, and Esther Mills (played by Tasha R. Williams) is a 35-year-old seamstress in New York, up from the south, wishing to avoid being a spinster.
Not every history of black America is the history of racism.
This weekend, 4th Wall Theatre presents “Intimate Apparel” by Lynn Nottage, the first female playwright to win two Pulitzer Prizes.
First presented in 2004, “Intimate Apparel” has been widely produced ever since.
“I read the play several years ago and it just it just always stuck with me,” said 4th Wall Executive Director Gwen Ricks-Spencer, who directs, at the final rehearsal at Montclair Operetta Club, before the show moves to Maplewood for its performances.
“It strikes me as a quintessentially American story,” Ricks-Spencer said. It made sense as a choice for Black History Month, since it has a diverse cast and a broad scope, with wealthy uptown characters, prostitutes, and the central character of Esther, a working woman trying to make a life for herself. The relationships are nuanced, and intimate.
“A lot of people think of black history, and they think of Martin Luther King, or Frederick Douglas, or Harriet Tubman, the major figures in African-American history. What I like about this is that it tells a small moment about everyday, ordinary people that make this country go around,” Ricks-Spencer said.
Lynn Nottage based the story on her own great-grandmother, who came up from the South, and learned to sew intimate apparel, with a diverse clientele. She met a man from the Caribbean, and the marriage ended up not working. “It’s the little things that make up a history piece,” the director said.
4th Wall presents between three and five shows a year, primarily musicals, with usually one drama. They have often produced their work at the Westminster Arts Center, but that was unavailable this year. The company is in its 23rd year; Ricks-Spencer is one of the founders. She explained that Artistic Director Kate Swan, who selects the season, also chooses a theme for the season. This year’s theme is “resilience and optimism.”
Esther ends up marrying the Panama worker, and he turns out to be a disappointment.
But while Esther’s story is sad, she doesn’t let it beat it down, and she’s willing to go on in life, Ricks-Spencer said.
Tasha R. Williams, of Belleville who plays Esther Mills, loves the way her character connects to the different characters on those different levels.
The relation between Esther and the Hasidic Jew, Mr. Marks (played by Patrick McAndrew, of Bayonne), is her favorite, Williams said. “They both come from someplace that’s unfamiliar. She comes from the South to the North, he comes from Romania to America. They want to make a better life for themselves. They have these commonalities. They clearly share a love for fabric and for creating things. Which facilitates in some part this shared love they have for one another and the fact that they can't have that. For Esther it’s just one more dream that she knows is out of reach.”
Ricks-Spencer pointed out that Jews and African Americans had “a sort of mutual understanding, that we are both people that have had different types of struggles, but struggles. And there was a chance for a lot more interaction. She was a customer to him, not a servant.”
In the actual set, different settings are on different levels, and the levels suggest class differences in society, she explained.
Remembering to have a different physicality in relationship to different characters could be a challenge for a 21st-Century actress, Williams said with a laugh.
When Esther is with wealthy, white Mrs. Van Buren (played by Deshja Driggs-Hall of Montclair), she has to “minimize herself,” Williams said. “At one point she invites her to sit down, and Esther is hesitant because it's, ‘What is this white woman going to say to me? Do I engage with her? Do I keep eye contact? Do I keep my eyes averted?’ Still to this day, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around someone’s mindset,” she said.
Esther’s struggle to make a better life for herself and realize her dream, is easily relatable today. “It shows that we’re still, even to this day, fighting and doing what we have to do to rise above something that’s not easy,” she said. “But a lot of the themes that are presented for this time period are still very relevant.”