By Annette Hinkle
New York is a city of strangers and one that has perpetually been defined by the immigrant experience. In a timeless dance of moving up and on, newcomers arrive, settle into recently vacated living spaces of those who came before and, in turn, set about to make their way in a new world.
The notion of immigration and the lens through which new arrivals are seen is the topic of “Intimate Apparel,” Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play which is the next mainstage offering at Bay Street Theater.
Set in 1905, the play is directed by Bay Street’s artistic director Scott Schwartz and is a tale of love, desire and abject loneliness of the big city. The main character, Esther Mills, is an African American seamstress who has moved to New York from the south and is carving out her own successful business in the area that is now the Garment District of Manhattan.
Kelly McCreary (who plays Dr. Maggie Pierce on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy”) plays Esther, a talented seamstress whose clients represent a cross section of class and color in turn of the century New York. The undergarments she makes are sought after both by white high-end society women as well as African American prostitutes in her neighborhood.
Though her work is popular, beyond her clients and Mr. Marks, a Hasidic fabric merchant on the Lower East Side with whom she has a working relationship and a special bond, Esther is largely a solitary figure in her world. Her desire to find true love leads her to begin a correspondence with a man she has never met who is working far away on the Panama Canal.
McCreary notes that she saw “Intimate Apparel” in 2004 when it opened Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre with Viola Davis in the role of Esther. She has also had a number of friends who have acted in the play, but this is her first experience starring in it.
“In my humble opinion, every single character in the play are some of the best roles that have been written in theater in the last 30 years,” says McCreary. “I will say, after my first experience seeing the play, I had a pretty shallow understanding of who Esther was.”
“I think that had nothing to do with the production or the performance and more to do with the fact that the character is written with such depth,” she explains. “You see something new every time you read a scene or play a scene.”
In the role of Esther, one of the primary things McCreary has come to learn about her character is the fact that she’s a woman of contradiction and one who is quick to judge herself before others have a chance to do so.
“She’ll remark on her own looks in a derogatory way, and yet at the same time, she has a very high opinion of herself,” notes McCreary. “She has high self-esteem and knows the worth of her work and her worth in the world. She also has ambition and believes in herself.”
“But it’s a protective measure and a deflective measure and I think it’s the thing that drives her,” she adds. “If she has a lower perception of what she looks like, she has to work twice as hard to get what she wants. She has a fire, and more than I realized, a deep passion that is revealed in this play.”
She also occupies a unique position in the status of women in that she has dealings with all strata of society. Among those who cross Esther’s path are Mrs. Dickson, a mother and a teacher; Mrs. Van Buren, a wealthy woman who is Esther’s access to culture, wealth and the world of privilege; and Mayme, a black prostitute who is probably her closest peer.
“It’s so richly written, you get to see the emotional life of what it would be like to live in each of those strata at the time,” says McCreary. “All of these women are at different stages in their search for love. But it’s not about women seeking men. It’s about who these women are, what kind of love they’re looking for and discovering in themselves what they need to make themselves happy.”
“It’s the one thing they all share,” she adds. “There are so many themes and what makes it so incredibly brilliant is it’s really and truly timeless. We’re talking about immigration, and the immigrant experience of women in a world not set up for them to do well. We’re talking about limitations for people of color in socioeconomic and political settings, and it’s all very applicable.”
“I think it’s a show, frankly, that’s worth seeing worth more than once. “
In his role of director, Scott Schwartz agrees that this is a play about immigration, but he notes that it’s not just focused on immigrants who have crossed oceans to get to New York. There is also the exploration of people like Esther, who have come to the city from other parts of America for any variety of reasons.
“Esther came to north on her own 17 years before the play starts, when she was 17 years old, and has made a life for herself in New York as a successful seamstress,” explains Schwartz. “She was born in the South and her father was a slave, but never quite took to life as a free man.”
After her parents died, Esther headed to New York because the South had nothing to offer her.
“She describes her journey and while traveling north she was picking berries and sleeping in churches at night, doing whatever she could to survive,” says Schwartz. “Esther is such a fascinating character. She’s someone who has built walls around herself to protect herself and believes she’s never going to find love, so she’s kind of made herself hard by the time we meet her in the play.”
“She turns 35 and it shakes her to the core. In 1905, she’s a woman looking at her life and wonders what is it going to be?” he adds. “She’s offered this man, and that man, but isn’t interested in anything other than what she believes will be real love.”
“Kelly is playing the role beautifully.”
He notes that Esther is also a woman who lives between worlds, both physically and metaphorically. She is the consummate outsider, but one of her own choosing.
“She could do things to not be an outsider, but doesn’t want to make the sacrifice to do that,” says Schwartz. “Frankly, that’s a story we can all relate to in some way. Being part of our world but not feeling it.”
Schwartz notes this play is intriguing in that it paints a picture of New York City and African American society at a time when there was a lot of energy and the melting pot was at its hottest.
“It was a time of enormous growth and possibility,” he says. “One reason I picked this play for Bay Street is because it’s about the heart and the way in which we connect to each other on a romantic, friendly or spiritual level.”
“As the title suggests, it’s an extremely intimate and personal play. I thought at this time in our country and in our world, rather than looking at the macro, it would be nice to go more in the micro, into what really makes us all human beings, whatever the color of our skin.”
In addition to Kelly McCreary, the cast will feature Portia as Mrs. Dickson, Blake DeLong as Mr. Marks, Julia Motyka as Mrs. Van Buren, Edward O’Blenis as George, and Shayna Small as Mayme.
“Intimate Apparel” runs July 4 to July 30 at Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. The first preview on Tuesday, July 4 will be a “Pay What You Can” performance, with tickets available day of at the box office beginning at 11 a.m. The July 4 show will also have special holiday theming in the lobby and courtyard. To purchase tickets, log on to baystreet.org or call the box office at (631) 725-9500.