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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Dartmouth Students Stage An 'Intimate' Look At Gender And Ethnicity

Rob Strong
Dartmouth College
'Intimate Apparel' actresses Nashe Mutenda, left, and Zahra Ruffin discuss the challenges of being a woman of color in early 20th century New York, in a student play staged at the Hopkins Center.

This week, at the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover, the play Intimate Apparel is being performed by Dartmouth students. The play is set in 1905 but director Tazewell Thompson says the themes are reflective of our time.

Instead of a stage curtain, wispy white sheets dangle across the stage, iridescent under theater lights. They are reminiscent of clothing lines strung between tenement buildings in the lower East side of Manhattan at the turn of the century.

Audiences know the setting — New York City — but only by its interiors, the intimate spaces of a 35-year-old African American seamstress.

Esther is a transplant who creates lavish undergarments for Fifth Avenue debutantes and prostitutes alike. Her clothing connects worlds as she struggles to find her own place in society.

Director Tazewell Thompson calls it a feminist play.

“The four women in the play are very strong, independent women who are really trying to survive and maintain a life and go forward in a man's world,” he said backstage at recent dress rehearsal. “So this play is so perfect for our times, because I don't think those issues ever go away, unfortunately.”

"The four women in the play are very strong, independent women who are really trying to survive and maintain a life and go forward in a man's world. So this play is so perfect for our times, because I don't think those issues ever go away."- Tazewell Thompson, director

Along the way, some enormous talent is exhibited. Nashe Mutenda, a Dartmouth freshman, plays Mayme, a prostitute who had deferred dreams of stardom because of her skin color. The play is not a musical, but she does play the piano and sing.

The characters are all grappling with their backgrounds, their varying ethnicities, religions and nationalities and how those interact.

Thompson thinks those are questions the country is still trying to come to terms with. So he explored that with his actors in order to fill out the characters.

“We went around the table and talked about our own heritage, and it was fascinating to hear all the different places and the ancestors of the actors,” he reflected. “I love that. All those roots, all of those ancestral beginnings, all those shoulders that we stand on inform and fill out who we are.”

Thompson suggested they include those roots in their in their program biographies. One actress describes herself as “Zimbabwean-Sri Lankan-Japanese;” another’s father is Jamaican-born and mother is Italian.

The playwright Lynn Nottage wrote the play about her own grandmother's experiences.

Nottage insists that any performance ends with the phrase "Unidentified Negro 1905" projected above the stage.

The last moments of the play look like a sepia photograph of an anonymous African American woman: Esther, the person the audience has gotten to know intimately. 

Thompson thinks the tone of the play and its last moments are left up to interpretation.

“Some members of the audience will say 'oh god how tragic, how awful, I'm leaving the theater filled with despair'" he said.

He continued: “Others will say 'she's going to go on, there's hope, she's starting from the beginning and she's going to find her way again'.”

Intimate Apparel is playing at the Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H. on Friday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. Find more information here.

Rebecca Sananes was VPR's Upper Valley Reporter. Before joining the VPR Newsroom, she was the Graduate Fellow at WBUR and a researcher on a Frontline documentary.
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