ST. PETERSBURG — American Stage opens its 2015-16 season Sept. 18 with the revealing “Intimate Apparel” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Lynn Nottage. It will run through Oct. 11, with preview nights Sept. 16 and 17.
Set in New York in 1905, it tells the story of Esther, an African-American seamstress who creates exquisite lingerie for clients who range from wealthy white patrons to prostitutes. One by one the denizens of the women’s boarding house where she lives get married and move away, yet the 35-year-old Esther remains, longing for a husband and future of her own.
She begins a correspondence with George, a Caribbean man, who is working on the Panama Canal yet attempts to woo her with his beautiful letters before ultimately coming to New York. In her journey to find love, Esther discovers unexpected friendships that defy race, class and religion.
“Intimate Apparel” will mark the debut of Stephanie Gularte as producing artistic director at American Stage. Gularte said what appeals to her personally about this work is the relationships of the characters and what they all have in common despite how very different their lives and experiences are.
She noted that the play’s six different characters, who have all brought themselves to New York from somewhere else to pursue a better life, struggle with barriers and oppression.
“There’s a lot in the play that draws parallels between different kinds of struggles that people experience, and they’re all told through the central character of Esther,” said Gularte, who is also the play’s director.
The cast features a host of American Stage newcomers such as Nikole Williams, playing the role of Esther. Her credits include roles at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company and in numerous films, while Eddie Ray Jackson takes on the part of George. Rounding out the cast is ZZ Moor as a prostitute and ragtime pianist Mayme; Katrina Stevenson as Southern belle Mrs. Van Buren; Fredena J. Williams as Mrs. Dickson, the operator of Esther’s boarding house and Daniel Capote as Mr. Marks, the Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant with whom Esther shares a special bond.
With the exception of directing actress Moor in the past, this production marks the first time Gularte has worked with any of the other cast members. But she pointed out that it is a very talented cast and they all work very well together.
“In the rehearsal room it’s very exciting and positive!” Gularte said.
Though the action of this 2003 work takes place over a century ago, Gularte believes it is rife with timeless themes, as it deals with all the “superficial boundaries” that people still encounter and still build around themselves and one another.
“The title of the play, ‘Intimate Apparel,’ is a metaphor for looking at what’s really underneath, that kind of surprise that we still experience when we realize how alike so many of us are,” Gularte explained, “and that really human need to connect and have one’s life acknowledged and valued by another. I think those are absolutely some timeless issues that we’re certainly still wrestling with today.”
Gularte, who noted she has long been a fan of Nottage’s work, was formerly the founding artistic director of Capital Stage Company in Sacramento, Calif., a position she held for over a decade. One of the reasons she decided to make the cross-country haul to be a part of American Stage this year is that the Tampa Bay area and St. Pete in particular seemed to be going through something of a renaissance, she said.
“I was looking for a new challenge,” Gularte stated. “I was looking to move to a new community where the arts are really embraced but also where there’s a real opportunity for growth and some kind of development, and a company that had already a real strong hold in the community, which American Stage certainly does.”
Calling it an inspiring, surprising and heart-warming play filled with rich characters, Gularte believes this production may astonish some people at what lies underneath the layers of “Intimate Apparel.”
“I think that this is a play that will surprise people in how fulfilling it is as a piece of entertainment,” she asserted, adding that it is a very socially conscious play that is funny and emotional. “It’s just a really great journey. I think people will come to this play and be drawn into the lives of these characters and leave very, very fulfilled.”
For complete show times and ticket information, visit americanstage.org or call (727) 823-7529.