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Play gets intimate with seamstress

April 2012

Centaur, artistic director Roy Surette has solidified his rep as a heir to Maurice Podbrey and Gordon McCall by piling on one hit after another.

The current offering, Intimate Apparel, ends April 29.

The play: It won many off-Broadway awards, where it starred Academy Award-winner Viola Davis.

The actors: I would go to anything starring Tamara Brown, Lucinda Davis, jazz icon Ranee Lee or Patricia Summersett—and here they all are together.

The storyline: It tells of an African American lady who dreams of becoming a seamstress and maybe more in 1905 ragtime New York.

That plotline had a special resonance with me. In 1965 New York, as a grad student, I became a passing friend of Ellen Stewart, who died last year at 91. Like the protagonist in Intimate Apparel, this black lady wended her way to New York to become a fashion designer.

While broke and cleaning offices, she was spotted by a kindly Jewish textile seller who gave her some silky fabrics to create beachwear. The designs landed her a job at fancy department stores and she recycled the earnings to start one of the first off-off-Broadway café theatres, La Mama E.T.C.

After several years of dodging zoning violations, La Mama became an incubator for scores of famous playwrights, actors and musicians. A Ford Foundation grant followed, a permanent theatre was set up on East 4th St., and disciples copied the formula in most other countries in the world. An estimated 19,000 productions traversed the world before her funeral at St. Patrick’s on Fifth Ave.

Alas, things do not work out so well for the budding seamstress in Intimate Apparel. They do for the audience and for Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who at 48 (the new 28?) is on her way to cementing Ellen Stewart’s creative vision.



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