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Intimate details

Set in 1905, Intimate Apparel’s characters are real and flawed, working through the challenges set before them. Kate Watson looks into the universal appeal of the story.


Raven Dauda plays Esther in Intimate Apparel. - DAVID HOU
  • David Hou
  • Raven Dauda plays Esther in Intimate Apparel.

When it comes to learning lines, Raven Dauda and Kevin Hanchard are having an easier time than the rest of the cast of the Neptune production of Intimate Apparel. It's not that they have über memories or have discovered a magical recall system--- it's just that this will the fourth time they've starred together in this particular play.

And while you might think that repeating a role time and time again would become tiresome, they both insist that's not what they've experienced. They say the multi-layered nature of the playwright Lynn Nottage's work, fine direction by Philip Akin (who has been the director of all four productions) and the personal growth that happens between productions makes returning to these characters a fresh and exciting venture.

"I've definitely grown and have a different perspective and life experiences since the first time I played this role," says Dauda, who first starred in the show's Canadian premiere in Toronto in 2008 with Obsidian Theatre Company. "It's like each production becomes an animal of its own with a different cast and a different set. It becomes a story in that moment."

"There's certainly no point doing the same show over and over in the same way," says Hanchard. "It has to be different, deeper, richer every time. And I think having new blood in some of the roles breathes new life into it. You get to hear lines again as if it's for the first time."

Intimate Apparel is the story of Esther (Dauda), an African-American seamstress living in New York City in 1905. She sells her wares across cultural and socio-economic borders, crafting exquisite undergarments for both socialites and prostitutes. Though plain and sensible, the 35-year-old spinster dreams of finding her own true love. It looks as if her dream will come true when she mysteriously begins receiving letters from George (Hanchard), a Caribbean labourer working on the Panama Canal.

Their relationship blossoms with the help of friends who must write letters for the illiterate Esther. But dreams and reality prove to be different things when George eventually comes to New York.

"I like to say that he is a good guy that does bad things," Hanchard says in defense of the all-too-human George. "And I think that's part of why people are moved, touched and energized by this play. It's about characters that are real and flawed, and everyone can identify with that.

"They come expecting a 'black' story that will educate them, but they end up shocked and pleased that it's a story they can really identify with."

Bridget Ogundipe plays Mayme, a good-natured prostitute and close friend of Esther. She seconds the notion that Intimate Apparel is far more than just a story of specific people in a specific time and place.

"This is the story of people, good or bad, nice or not, who are living out the circumstances, obstacles and challenges that are laid out before them," says Ogundipe. "It's a universal story about people searching for intimacy and it's been crafted into a great work of art."

And although it may not be a comparison that necessarily jumps to mind, Intimate Apparel is a play that makes a fitting companion piece for Norm Foster's wildly popular comedy Mrs. Parliament's Night Out which just closed at Neptune.

"What a great show to butt up against Mrs. Parliament!" exclaims Hanchard. "They have common themes like searching, making decisions and taking chances. And really, isn't that what life's all about?"

Intimate Apparel, to March 25 at the Neptune Fountain Hall, See for ticket info

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