‘Intimate Apparel’ predominantly features actors of color

by Nalini Ramanathan | 11/4/16 12:00am

With simple Edwardian-style furniture strewn across the stage and plain white linen sheets hung to dry on laundry lines by the rafters and a multicultural patchwork quilt in the background, the set of “Intimate Apparel” (2003), like the play itself, breaks from the typical perceptions of a period piece. Broaching realities of sex work, immigration and racial and gender inequality in the early 20th century, the production not only recounts histories often left out of typical American narratives, but is also one of the few mainstage theater department productions at Dartmouth with a cast of predominantly people of color.

African-American playwright and Columbia University professor Lynn Nottage wrote the play in 2003, basing much of the story on the experiences of her own great-grandmother. The play focuses on the aspirations of Esther, an African-American seamstress who starts her own lingerie business, targeting both society ladies and sex workers such as Mayme.

The theater department decided on this play for a mainstage production early last spring. According to guest director Tazewell Thompson, the department chose the play because it was a strong play in which African American students were represented.

Zahra Ruffin ’17, who plays Esther in the production, said that students of color in the theater department have pushed for more representation in productions. The choice of “Intimate Apparel” is in part a response to that.

Carene Mekertichyan ’16, Ruffin said, played a very strong role in advocating for more roles for people of color as well.

Last spring, Mekertichyan chose “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” (1976) for her senior thesis. She acted as both dramaturge, conducting background research, for the production and played the Lady in Red. Both Ruffin and Jovanay Carter ’19, who plays Mrs. Dickinson in “Intimate Apparel,” acted in Mekertichyan’s production.

The show, Ruffin said, sold out for every performance, a success which she said moved the theater department to bring in more students of color.

Last spring, as part of the discussion that the theater department has with rising seniors, Ruffin also spoke about her desire to continue the discussion on representation that Mekertichyan started with her senior thesis.

Ruffin said that Mekertichyan had wanted to do this show as long as she knew her.

“One of the things she kept saying to me was: One, you have to audition and two, you have to make sure that people audition, because since there are so few of us, if nobody shows up for this, they’re not going to make anything like this again regardless of people who are interested in it,” Ruffin said.

The department selected the play with guest director Thompson in mind because they believed he would give the play the treatment it deserves, Ruffin said. Thompson also directed Dartmouth’s mainstage production of “Big Love” in 2013, which Ruffin also acted in.

As director, Thompson said he looked for strong actors who knew how to tell a story emotionally and who had a genuine love for theater. Much of the cast has a background in theater, including Nashe Mutenda ’20, who plays Mayme in the production and was one of the few minority actors in her high school in Japan.

She was encouraged to audition for the role of Mayme due to her skill as a singer and classically trained pianist, though se did not originally plan on doing so. Mutenda said she could connect to her character’s love for music, particularly when she uses the pieces she plays to reflect her emotions.

Thompson works primarily as a director in the professional world of opera and theater, but he also has extensive experience as a guest artist and chair for college and high school theater. On his directing style, Carter said that Thompson has a very funny, big spirit and expects a lot out of his actors. Despite his vast directorial experience, Dartmouth students stick out to him.

“What I love about my experiences at Dartmouth is that Dartmouth students are filled with curiosity,” Thompson said.

Although he has the cast work on character development on their own time, Thompson focuses on the cast and crew’s cultural and family backgrounds, particularly due to the play’s theme of immigration, a topic that he finds particularly relevant in present political discussions.

In the program, Carter talks about her own great-grandmother, who like the character she plays, Mrs. Dickinson, is from the South, and how her great-grandmother shapes the way she sees her character. She also points out differences between her great-grandmother and Mrs. Dickinson. In particular, she noted that Mrs. Dickinson, who is older than her great-grandmother, lived in a different time period with other kinds of expectations for a 50-year-old woman.

Mutenda wrote about her own background as well, discussing her childhood in Japan with Sri Lankan and Zimbabwean parents. As Mayme, Mutenda said she finds her character, who does everything on her own terms, very empowering, noting the character is very different from the typical roles designated to women in Japan.

For the cast, the story remains relevant beyond their personal connections.

Carter commented on the exploitation of Esther by her partner George in the play, which she believes relates to cultures of male dominance on college campuses.

“You feel that in university, men have a dominant culture, sometimes they don’t care,” Carter said.

Ruffin also believes viewers can relate to the play on a broader level as well.

“If you’ve ever been optimistic, if you’ve ever been hopeful for something, this applies to you. If you’ve ever been an outsider trying to carve your own space in something, this show is for you,” Ruffin said. “If you are in anyway abreast in politics and the discussion of immigrants and who is American and who can make it in this country, this show is for you.”

“Intimate Apparel” will have seven showings in the Moore Theater, beginning tonight at 8 p.m.