The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Lynn Nottage took a break from her work on a Broadway musical to speak with the award-winning writer and historian Paula Giddings, whose books include When and Where I Enter and the biography of the iconic activist Ida B. Wells, Ida. In a quiet lounge above Times Square, the two women spoke with our editor, Alexis Gargagliano, about the history of people who have remained anonymous and undocumented, the power of telling these stories through art, and the dimension that music brings to this adaptation of Lynn Nottage’s beloved play.
ALEXIS GARGAGLIANO Lynn, how did you come to write the play Intimate Apparel?
LYNN NOTTAGE The play really came about after the death of my mother, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease robs one of the ability to speak. And, just at the moment in my life when I was prepared to ask questions about my family history, my mother was unable to answer them. At the same time my mother was struggling with A.L.S. my grandmother was suffering from alcoholism, which led to her dementia, and so she as well was unable to answer the questions I had about our family. While we were moving my grandmother from her home in Crown Heights/ Bedford-Stuyvesant to live with my brother, I had the unpleasant task of clearing out her house. I had thrown out a ton of magazines before I realized that my grandmother stored all of her personal photographs between the pages—like she was willing the family to be part of the magazines. In the center of a Family Circle I found a black-andwhite passport photograph of my grandmother and her sister sitting on my great-grandmother’s lap. It was the first time I’d ever seen an image of this striking woman. My great-grandmother was a seamstress from Barbados, and she was taking her children back to the island to visit her relatives. I saw the image and it sparked a million and one questions. The photograph led me on this journey to begin piecing together the history of my great-grandmother, a woman who was basically a stranger to me.
AG Were there things in the research process that really jumped out?
LN One of the things that I encountered when I was doing research is that the lives of “extraordinary/ordinary” AfricanAmerican women at the beginning of the twentieth century were almost completely undocumented. It was very hard to find any periodicals, with the exception of newspaper listings for work or the occasional criminal incident. There were few books written about Black women during this period; it was as if our lives were unworthy of notation. Despite an epic search, I found that there was very little information; in the end, it was quite frustrating. My research was very much about trying to piece together the scraps of information that I could conjure from various sources.
PAULA GIDDINGS I was interested in the kinds of things you looked at to bring the history alive.
LN The ads in the newspapers looking for women of color—domestics—were very helpful. I also found descriptions of boardinghouses and the living circumstances to be quite useful, and, because my central character, Esther, is a seamstress, I found myself looking at images of corsets in sources like the Sears catalogs. I spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library, in the visual-arts section, perusing images from that period. My primary research was done at the Schomburg and the main research branch of the New York Public Library, both of which have wonderful photo archives. One of the first things I did was hunt for images of the people like the folks in the play. I found my Esther, I found my Mr. Marks, I found my Mrs. Van Buren, and my George. I pinned those pictures to the wall in my office, and then I went about researching their individual lives.
PG Esther made me think of how the occupation of a seamstress allows a Black woman to navigate not only across race but across class as well.
LN When I was writing the play, I was really interested in that intersection between class and race and gender. I knew when I decided to write about Esther that she was someone who could negotiate nontraditional spaces because of the nature of her work. I also knew that she was someone who could enter with ease the boudoir of a prostitute as well the homes of very wealthy white women. I was interested in what happens when a Black woman who is not empowered enters these different spaces, how her presence shifts the energy within that room.
I was interested in what happens when a Black woman who is not empowered enters these different spaces, how her presence shifts the energy within that room.
PG Another kind of space was a shelter and protective space for single Black women like that of the White Rose Home for Colored Working Girls, a settlement house in New York during this period. It was founded by Victoria Matthews, a journalist who had been born into slavery in Georgia. She was a friend of Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist, who also founded a settlement house in Chicago. They were protecting Black women, many of whom were coming from the South to find work, like Esther. Esther’s boardinghouse is another protective refuge. I love the sisterhood that’s there and that you talk about.
LN I tried to imagine the first point of contact for a young woman who’s seventeen or eighteen years old upon arrival in New York City. Where would she go? She’d no doubt hunt for someplace that’s familiar. She’d probably seek out other Black women in a similar predicament. And these boardinghouses existed during that period because there was such a massive influx of southern Black women and immigrant women who were coming to New York City at the turn of the century. These women needed safe and inexpensive places to live while forging new lives. My family was part of the wave of Black southerners and West Indians who migrated from the South to the city during Reconstruction and the early twentieth century.
AG Certainly Mrs. Dixon’s boardinghouse is a safe space. What are these young women facing in this period?
PG Conditions in this period were so perilous for Black women. There were unscrupulous employment agents, con artists, and the proliferation of dancing halls, gambling and prostitution houses helped create what was called a moral panic around young Black women particularly. This resulted in a good deal of surveillance, arrests, and incarceration of Black women, who were always seen as suspect regarding “immoral” activities. People like Esther, who obviously was brought up in a particular way and was a Christian, would have been very aware of their environment. The whole idea of respectability is also very important in this period, not just for its own sake but because it was evidence that Black women were not inherently immoral and thus undeserving of protection by the state.
AG How would someone like Esther, who couldn’t read or write, have gotten her news?
PG Although Esther was illiterate, she probably would have been aware of Black newspapers like the New York Age, which was widely circulated and often read or recounted to those who could not read.
AG What might someone like Esther have known about the activism and reform that were happening at the time?
PG Places like the White Rose Settlement had information sessions and political lectures. This period is the first time Black women were prepared to enter the public sphere and initiate reforms on a large scale. Just eleven years before the play is set, the first national Black women’s organization— the National Association of Colored Women—was founded, with its motto: “Lifting as We Climb.”
AG The presence of the women in the opera is very powerful, and the absence of the men very striking.
PG That’s right. Did you find this absence of men in your family history?
LN Not in my immediate family, because my father was very present, but in the generation before mine there was an absence of men. It’s like the babies were born and then the men disappeared. There was this generation of women who just had to make lives in the absence of male support and companionship.
PG It is amazing how, not to overgeneralize, but how we’re always talking about our making a way out of no way, of overcoming tremendous challenges as Black women, but then the man comes around and it’s like kryptonite. (Laughter) As Esther shows us, the need to be loved is more important than anything.
LN One of the things I did get to do with the opera that I felt was incomplete in the play was delve more deeply into the character of George, even though he’s meant to be somewhat elusive. I wanted to explore just a little bit more about the nature of his wants and desires when he arrived in a city that was not necessarily a welcoming place for a skilled Black laborer. George, as I understand, is someone who was aspirational. He wasn’t purely mercenary in his intentions. But he came to New York with a mission of self-improvement and betterment, and along the way he also fell victim to con artists. He is at once the exploiter and the exploited.
PG No one can fulfill their dreams in this play. Though no one gets hit with a sledgehammer, their dreams wither before our eyes.
LN They’re people who have these incredible aspirations, and they all become victims of circumstances. I think this is largely due to the way in which racism and classism functioned in New York City at the time. These social barriers were insurmountable for uneducated laborers like Esther and George.
PG Or themselves.
LN Someone like Esther, who’s illiterate and who’s African-American and who’s a woman—there’s only so far that she can climb on the social ladder.
PG And she’s actually done very well for herself.
LN That’s right. She’s heroic. The play begins with Esther sitting at her sewing machine, and when you see that sewing machine it should feel like it’s a symbol of oppression. But by the time she sits at the sewing machine at the end, it should feel like it’s a tool of liberation.
PG It’s interesting, because the play is unfolding around the same time as the shirtmakers’ strike, but Esther transcends the kind of industrial repression that those women experienced.
LN Yes, because she’s entrepreneurial.
AG Paula, there’s a line in your book When and Where I Enter that says, “We became indispensable to everyone but ourselves.” That really resonated for me with Esther’s journey.
PG We’re very self-confident in many ways and very strong in many ways, but we also tend to think that we are not the ones who are going to shape the race’s future. We tend to think that the race will be saved if men, not us, are saved, but I think the truth may be just the opposite. When Esther gives up her money and that dream, she is saying Armstrong is the one who’s going to carry us forth, and it was her job to help him do so.
LN Yes. It’s like she’s investing more in his dream than in her own. That somehow she hasn’t placed enough value on her dreams to understand that she can accomplish more if she leans into it. You made me think of a quote from Ellen Craft, who was a runaway enslaved person in the 1840s. During an abolitionist meeting in Boston a white man stood up and asked, “Well, what makes you think that you can take care of yourself in freedom?” And she said, “I’ve been taking care of white people and myself for all of these years. I am certain I can take care of just myself.” She had been responsible for everyone. I think a lot about that in terms of being a Black woman. One of the reasons it was so hard for us to gain ground during the twentieth century was that we were so busy taking care of the lives of everyone else. Esther is certainly a victim of her own nurturing spirit. I saw it with my relatives. For generations they took care of white people and then had to come home and feed their kids, and clean the house, and take care of their husbands.
PG That’s right, that’s right. And there are different phases of this, because the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when Black women are coming into the public realm, they’re debating all this. In 1892, the educator and feminist Anna Julia Cooper writes, “When and where I enter”—meaning Black women— “When and where I enter…the whole race enters with me.”
LN One of the things that Black women encountered is that when you’re working that hard you don’t have time for activism. When you’re working just to feed your children and to pay your rent, you really don’t have time for all the ancillary things. Think of the suffragist movement; Black women were part of it, but it was, by and large, credited to white women, who had leisure time to march and, importantly, document the history of it.
PG Yes, white women had people to take care of the house and the children. Ida B. Wells figured out that she had to take her children to the scenes of lynching. She said, “Look, I can’t leave them. I will take them with me.”
AG How did you conceptualize having the anonymous photographs at the end of each act?
LN We had done the piece at Baltimore Center Stage, and one of the questions that kept coming up was: Why is this piece relevant today? I thought, Well, it should be obvious, but clearly it was not obvious to a lot of people in the audience. Suddenly, when I bookended the acts with images—“Unidentified Negro Couple,” “Unidentified Negro Seamstress”—people understood why I was telling this story, that it was a reclamation project. I wanted to rescue these working-class people from obscurity.
PG One of the most haunting things I ever came across in doing the research, particularly trying to find names of enslaved people, was a woman, a Black woman, who called herself Rememberme—all one word.
LN That’s amazing. Where did you find that?
PG In a slave census document.
LN That’s beautiful. She understood that she was going to be disappeared and she gave herself the name that you found a century later. She knew that at some point in history someone would read it and hear the message.
PG When Ida B. Wells wrote about the victims of lynching, she made sure they would not be anonymous. She mentioned their names, where they were from, what the community thought of them.
LN Wells is so important. It is only with a generation of Black women who have the power to put pen to paper that she has been resurrected.
AG Yes. Really, a whole swath of history has been disappeared. We are still in a place where “African-American history” seems to be largely kept separate from what we are taught is “American history,” and without that knowledge it is impossible to understand our country or ourselves.
PG Absolutely. There’s nothing that goes on in this country that’s not shaped by race—and by slavery, specifically. That history is the foundation for everything: not just the founding of the nation on a mega level but our practices, like the advent of the insurance business, which comes out of insuring enslaved people. That our Ivy Leagues were capitalized by those involved in the slave trade at a time when the modern social sciences emerged still has an impact not only on how race but gender is taught in the academy. As Toni Morrison wrote, “If you don’t know Black women’s history you don’t know American history.” Once you understand that history, then you understand race, you understand gender, and you understand sexuality. There’s a glimmer of light: there are scholars doing some great work in this area.
AG Given the dearth of documented histories of Black people at this time, there’s something especially poignant about being able to capture the stories of anonymous people in art.
LN One of the real joys of being an artist is being able to shed light in these spaces where darkness has been. Illuminate. So often when I was doing my research I’d look at photographs, particularly those of wealthy white families. In the captions, all the white people would be identified, and then where the Black person’s name and title should be it would always say “Unidentified Negro.” When people look at the images in the production, I really want them to think more thoroughly about the life of someone like Esther, someone who has been disappeared from the public archive. I was at the Brooklyn Museum looking at the art of Titus Kaphar. One of the things he does is examine traditional European painting and, in particular, images that have Black folx who are relegated to the margins. Part of his practice is re-creating these “classical” paintings. However, he shifts the focus, bringing the Black folx to the foreground. He says that his mission is to shift perspective—so that a Black boy who is hidden in the background, not fully seen, becomes seen. That’s what art can do so beautifully, and that’s what I was hoping to do with Intimate Apparel. I always felt like its perfect form is an opera. It has sopranos, the alto, the tenor, the baritone. It’s perfectly designed for operatic voices.
AG How has the music opened up the story for you in this adaptation?
LN I was listening to the artist Theaster Gates talk about Black sonic life and how it is music—and not just music but sound—that rescued us and got us through a prolonged period of trauma. We, as Black people in America, have had to suffer through centuries of oppression, and one of the things that permitted us to transcend it was the power to express our trauma through music and through sound. In Intimate Apparel, in the moment after George has taken all of Esther’s money, she releases this beautiful, tortured sound that Ricky has created. It is a perfect expression of what I wanted to convey. When I heard it, I thought, There is no other way I could have captured the intensity of her despair. It is a perfect marriage between the words and the music. It is beautiful and it is horrifying, and it captures all the complexities of Esther in that moment. That’s the dimension that opera brings. There are layers that, no matter how hard I work, can’t speak as expansively as the marriage between the words and the music.