A close-up look at 'Intimate Apparel' with director Jacqui Parker

The Boston-based director, playright and actor is overseeing the Brandeis production that will run from March 3 to 6.

Note: This Q&A originally appeared in the spring issue of State of the Arts.

Next month, Brandeis’ Department of Theater Arts will feature a performance of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” winner of American Theatre Critics and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for best play.

To interpret the story of Esther, an African-American seamstress who creates exquisite lingerie for socialites and sex workers alike, the department chose Jacqui Parker, a Boston-based playwright, director and actor to oversee a cast of student performers.

Parker moves among community, educational and professional theater worlds with a clarity and brilliance that has resulted in six awards from the Independent Reviewers of New England and the Boston Theatre Hero Award from StageSource in 2004.

Here, she gives a hint of what’s in store at Spingold Theater Center during the play’s March 3-6 run.

“Intimate Apparel” takes place in New York City in 1905. What interests you about that setting?

I love a good period drama. The history is so rich. The struggle so deep. Plays like this really motivate and strengthen me as a person. What I feel when I read this play is very real and in some ways very contemporary. I am looking forward to talking with young minds and learning how they see the world today.  

Describe Esther, the protagonist, in five words.


What is Esther’s world? What is the distance between her world and her dreams?

I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that her world changes throughout the play. Her dreams keep her grounded, as she doesn’t dream of flying, just a better way. And when she allows herself to grow some tiny wings in fantasy ... well.  

What are the consequences for Esther when George, her suitor, enters her life?

Anytime we take a chance and allow someone new into our lives, that action opens many doors of change. I think he offers hope for her. Perhaps an answer to her longing. His letters tell her she can fly and she takes a chance, one of the biggest she has ever taken in her life.

What is this play’s potential for cultural influence?

It offers a different perspective of history. During our design research, many of the designers could only find photographs of African-Americans in extreme poverty. That was indeed troubling to me, since Nottage makes it her business not to have these people come across as impoverished. Mrs. Dickson owns her boardinghouse. Esther has put away a nest egg. Mayme is a prostitute but not destitute. George has the biggest challenge, as his race hinders him from climbing up the ladder.

What are the pitfalls, if you will, of interpreting a play that deals with race?

I don’t have to leave anything to interpretation since I live this life every day. This could have been my grandmother’s life. Or her mother’s. The challenge for me and for the actors is to make sure they invest completely in their stories and just be. It’s not a trap for me but a celebration.

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