Lynn Nottage's 'Intimate Apparel' to get revival at Everyman Theatre

Pulitzer Prize winning-playwright Lynn Nottage.
Pulitzer Prize winning-playwright Lynn Nottage.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Lynn Nottage gives voice in her plays to people kept on the margins of society or the news media, people confined to the footnotes of history.

Her 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, "Sweat," explored middle-class lives in a struggling American factory town. In "Ruined," which won the 2009 Pulitzer, Nottage focused on women trapped in the horror of a Congolese civil war.


And in 2003, Nottage opened a window into African-American life in early 20th-century New York with "Intimate Apparel," about a lonely seamstress trying to fulfill her dreams of love and a career against considerable odds. It premiered at Baltimore Center Stage and receives a revival from Everyman Theatre this weekend.

For the playwright, "Intimate Apparel" represents a particularly personal endeavor.

"It is my love song to my family," she says.

The story behind that song started when the New York-born and -based Nottage, 52, discovered a photo of her great-grandmother.

"After dealing with my mother's death and my grandmother's senile dementia, I realized there was no one who could tell me anything about my grandmother's mother," Nottage says, "no one who could relate the family history."

The little the playwright did know about the woman in the old picture was that she had been a seamstress and had married an immigrant from the Caribbean. Nottage headed to the New York Public Library to glean more about her great-grandmother's era.

"A lot was written about African-Americans in the South or during the Great Migration," Nottage says, "but there was a little period in between, especially what was happening in urban centers, that wasn't written about much."

Nottage dug into periodicals and newspapers to get a sense of New York life in 1905 and to flesh out the fictional character of a seamstress she named Esther. (Viola Davis played the part when "Intimate Apparel" was staged off-Broadway in 2004.)


"It's imperative in all of us to find the stories that haven't been told," Nottage says. "African American women played an integral role in the shaping of this country, but they were almost invisible. I call this [play] my reclamation project. I'm hoping some young person will see [it] and be emboldened to go out and do some research."

The plot Nottage weaves in "Intimate Apparel" rings true, says Dawn Ursula, who plays Esther in Everyman's revival.

"We can see ourselves," she says. "Every emotion and action is recognizable."

Ursula, who directed a staged reading of "Intimate Apparel" last year at Everyman and starred in the company's previous productions of Nottage's works ("Ruined" and "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark"), finds a timely quality in "Intimate Apparel."

"Oh, wow, you can't help but feel how the play relates to what's going on right now in this country and the world," the actress says, "how far we have and have not come."

Nottage, who revised the script after its premiere (she called for the projection of a historic photo at the end so audiences would "understand why they were seeing this play"), is still working on "Intimate Apparel" — but in a different way. She's collaborating with composer Ricky Ian Gordon on turning the play into an opera.


"It's very close to being done," Nottage says. "I will confess I found it very difficult. But I like how there will be another crowd that's going to get to know Esther. And I hope people who know the play will come to the opera and see Esther in new context."

Playwriting will still be the primary focus for Nottage, the first woman to win two Pulitzers for drama. She takes that achievement in stride.

"It hasn't substantially changed my life," Nottage says. "I wish something magical had happened. When I won a second Pulitzer, I expected an opening from the sky and some trumpets. But the next day, I got up and was back at work."

If you go

"Intimate Apparel" opens Friday and runs through Nov. 19 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $10 to $65. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.