News & Articles

Intimate Apparel - Artistic Director Martha Lavey's preview

by Martha Lavey

An interesting thing happened this season and it happened utterly without my having designed it; I wasn’t aware it was so until the season’s programming was complete. Four of our five subscription-series plays are being directed by women. This is noteworthy because a woman had not directed on the stage of our current theater before our 20th season here when Kyle Donnelly directed our production of Molly Sweeney in 1996. And equally noteworthy because, as I say, the fact that four of the directors on this, our 2004-2005 season, are women evolved without design – they were, simply, the best directors for the job. I mention Steppenwolf’s own history with the question of our artists’ gender in the context of Intimate Apparel because gender functions so centrally in the life of, and the lives in, the play. Our playwright, Lynn Nottage, speaks movingly of having discovered a photograph of her great-grandmother whose name was unknown to her and wanting, urgently, to learn that anonymous woman’s history, to tell her story, to make her visible. While gender continues to be a site of cultural contest (Are men from Mars? Are women from Venus?), it is, contrarily quite possible to find the presence of women in arenas previously closed to them a quite unremarkable fact. We’re accustomed to seeing women as leaders in business and politics, we celebrate the accomplishments of our female athletes and artists; the Nobel Peace Prize this year was awarded to a woman. But as Lynn Nottage’s play so eloquently expresses, a single woman – and importantly, an African-American woman – in 1905 America had no such purchase on cultural presence. She was, simply, invisible. Her surest guarantee of social security was to attach herself to a man – an identity by proxy. I find the great accomplishment of Ms. Nottage’s play to be its rigorous, but simple and poetic, pursuit of this question of cultural presence and how, inevitably, race, class and gender articulate with one’s ability to achieve that visibility. The visibility that Ms. Nottage champions and cherishes for her grandmother is not stardom, is not the publicity of the extraordinary – she just wants her grandmother to get on the page, to have a name (even just to her granddaughter) and so, she put her grandmother on stage. If theater has an enduring and important social function (and not surprisingly, I believe it does), it obtains precisely in Ms. Nottage’s use of it: a life, lived in anonymity, is given visibility, is made reverberant, speaks across the boundaries of its time and place, to touch OUR lives. The treasure of our human empathy is aroused and in that exchange, our own presence in the world is vivified and confirmed. One of the things that our director, Jessica Thebus, has observed about the play is that each of the characters in Intimate Apparel could, if the prism of the storytelling were turned slightly, be the central character of another fascinating play. Each of the characters is rendered with a sympathy and sense of purpose suggestive of a complex and full life. This suggestiveness of a larger life in each of the supporting characters echoes Nottage’s fuller purpose: every life (including our own) is, simultaneously, a central and minor character in a story – the prominence of any life, in any narrative, depends upon who is telling the story. And the question of who is telling the story circles back to considerations of race, of class, of gender. I find it less informative to cast the issue in polemical terms – to propagate cultural divisions by sniffing out conspiracies and hegemonies – than to interrogate the categories of race, class and gender as filters and to question to what degree one’s identification with each of those social constructs permits and constrains vision and visibility. What assumptions do I carry around (what assumptions are simply invisible to me) because of my location in historical moment, in class, in race, in gender? And WHO is invisible to me? And to whom am I invisible? Intimate Apparel is beautiful to me because it sounds the chord of these profound cultural themes with poetry and grace and a goodly share of sympathy and kindness. I’m pretty sure that as our world grows increasingly more interdependent, as every village gains a global consciousness, that the most valuable capacity we can develop in ourselves is an ability to recognize ourselves in the other, to honor difference and to retain empathy. Your theater-going is your own vote of confidence in that generosity – an act of faith in a shared humanity. Many thanks for your presence.