Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage channeled her seamstress grandmother when she wrote "Intimate Apparel." With her grandmother no longer able to fill in the blanks, Nottage dreamed up the characters of Esther Mills and the central figures of her life in 1905.
Esther uses her talents with needle and thread to create beautiful underthings for her clients, who range from society ladies to prostitutes. An "old maid" at 35, the African-American woman aspires to marry and start her own business.
"Intimate Apparel" starts Thursday and runs through Feb. 25 on the main stage at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. It is part of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic's six-week festival "Leonard Bernstein at 100: The Best of All Possible Worlds," celebrating the composer.
"With Bernstein's care of social issues, it feels like a natural fit," said director Scott RC Levy, producing artistic director and director of performing arts for the FAC.
"It really is about the clothes and the costuming, the fabric and what the fabric turns into," Levy said. "We are dealing with a woman who is literally making intimate apparel. The sensuality of the fabric is described very specifically in the text."
Levy said the FAC chose the play because, "From a social perspective, we do not have a great history of presenting works by people of color."
Esther, played by Lauren Hooper, starts receiving letters from George Armstrong, who is working on the Panama Canal. Esther's clients read the letters to her and write her replies. She also starts to develop feelings for Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jew who sells her fabric.
"I really love the scenes with Marks, the fabric merchant," Levy said. "Part of it is that I relate it to my own history. My grandparents were born in the Lower East Side. Being in that time, it's really beautiful to see how this man has so much care and love of the fabric he's selling."
The play is set in five bedrooms - all on stage at all times, so a bed is in every scene. Each character's story is compelling on its own, but Esther's world ties the narrative together.
"We're dealing with a woman's story," Levy said. "A woman is at the forefront in a story written by a woman. Her strengths and weaknesses are on display. It's very specific to 1905 New York. We recognized that this is an African-American play, but I think the color may transcend the audience by the end of the piece."
Levy said casting was somewhat of a challenge.
"Of the six actors, four are making their Fine Arts Center debut. One is based in Denver, one in New York and two are from L.A. In this case, the actors playing Esther and George auditioned for us in New York City a year ago April. It was a long time coming to get them here."
To play George, John Eric Parker took a leave of absence from "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway. He played the role of George 10 years ago and "said it was the beginning of a new chapter in his life. He wanted to see where it takes him this time," Levy said.
Set at a time when the country was on the cusp of electricity, the play manages to feel universal and contemporary, Levy said.
"It's a beautiful, lyrical, poetic play," he said. "It's about how relationships do or don't flourish, and the difference between the client and the person who's making the clothes."