Theatre department explores diversity in ‘Intimate Apparel’


Fabio Polanco (center) directs the cast of Intimate Apparel as they prepared for dress rehearsal on Wednesday, Oct. 4th, 2017. Opening night was Oct. 6 and will shows until Oct. 15.

Alex Kamczyc

The theatre department opened its new fall production “Intimate Apparel” this weekend at the Wright-Curtis Theatre — but this time, viewers saw something different.

The play was not only written by an African-American playwright, but it also features an all-black cast with only two white actors and actresses to accompany them on stage.

It is a welcomed change to many involved in the production.

“This is a play about gender,” said Fabio Polanco, an associate professor of theatre at Kent State and director of the play. “It’s a play (about) race. It’s a play about socioeconomic status. It’s a story about an individual woman, and I think there’s a lot of power in the fact that’s what it is.”

The play is also a departure from last season at Kent State’s Center for the Performing Arts in terms of diversity and content. The majority of the plays performed last season were written by white men, so the school felt a change was necessary.

“A colleague and I were talking and we felt that it was very important that a wider variety of voices be heard on our stage,” Polanco said. “It’s not that there hasn’t been diversity on our stage, but it seemed like the relationship of the types of voices on stage maybe needed a little bit of recalibration.”

The story centers on an African-American seamstress named Esther Miller who creates luxurious lingerie for a wide range of customers, from wealthy baronesses to prostitutes. She tries to envision a new life, but finds herself constantly weighed down by expectations of society at the time.

“The story was written by Lynn Nottage as an interpretation of what her grandmother’s life was like,” said Chantrell Lewis, a junior theatre studies major who starred as Esther. “It’s about the preservation of her story and the preservation of stories about people who aren’t always necessarily remembered.”

The play was first performed in 2003. Nottage is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright who is also an associate professor at Columbia University.

“She was trying to do research on her great-grandmother who was a seamstress that had married a Bohemian man,” Polanco said. “But she couldn’t really find that much information, so she spent time at the New York Public Library trying to see what she could gather and was only able to piece together a few things so that led her to creating this play.”

Since its debut, the play has earned a bevy of awards and nominations, including Best Actress in a Play (Viola Davis) and the John Gassner Award for best script in 2004.

As the play traverses, audiences are taken deeper into the personal life of Esther and her portrait begins to form. It is a presentation of what life would have been like for an African-American woman living in 1905.

“I was just so pumped to be in a play that features a predominantly black cast,” said Lauren Odioso, a senior theatre studies major who plays the role of Mrs. Van Buren, one of only two white characters in the play. 

The only way viewers are intended to be able to tell one scene from the other is a projector, marking each scene with titles that are related to lingerie.

“The play is intended to never stop. It’s meant to be continuous,” Polanco said. “One of the challenges is that you have to find a way that you can do that even though she’s changing locations all the time.”

To prepare for this show, the cast also had to take lessons from a dialect coach so they could learn how their characters would have talked in 1905. They were also taught certain mannerisms used during the time. For Lewis, she had to learn the entirety of the play because she does not leave the stage during the production.

“I think the most difficult part is being prepared mentally for the amount of work I have to do,” Lewis said. “I guess I didn’t necessarily expect to have to do so much physically. It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s also exciting at the same time.”

Odioso said the simplicity of the show and its differences from other plays will entice the audience.

“I feel like a lot of people were turned off from theatre because they think it’s just breaking out in song and dance. It’s a lot of theatrics and spectacle. The director’s concept for this show is honest, warm and revealing, and I think this play really embodies that.”

Polanco said the show will draw the audience in because of its message: everyone has a story to tell.

“These are real human beings, and there’s value in stopping to really look at what is the story of an individual who may seem, on the surface, not that consequential and how consequential they really are.” 

Alex Kamczyc is a features correspondent. Contact him at [email protected].