A Black woman in a white dress from the early 1900s sits center stage at a sewing machine. A sepia-toned photo of a woman at a sewing machine is projected behind her.
Mildred Marie Langford in Northlight Theatre's Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage Credit: Liz Lauren

If you’re up for journeys to the suburbs this weekend, it’s possible to see two plays by Lynn Nottage; Sweat, which earned Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize in 2017, is closing Sunday in Aurora at Paramount Theatre’s new Copley black-box space. (Reader contributor Catey Sullivan called the production, directed by Andrea J. Dymond, “gripping” and noted, “Nottage’s white, working-class characters provide vivid, eerily specific foreshadowing of the MAGA/white supremacist movement exponentially emboldened under the 45th president.”) And her 2003 play, Intimate Apparel, about a Black woman, Esther, working as a seamstress in New York in 1905, is currently getting a revival under Tasia A. Jones’s direction at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre.

Sweat, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 1 and 5:30 PM; Copley Theatre, 8 E. Galena, Aurora, 630-896-6666, paramountaurora.com, $67-$74.
Intimate Apparel, through May 15, Wed 1 and 7:30 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2:30 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; also Tue 5/3, 7:30 PM, and Sun 5/15, 7 PM; open captioning and audio described performance Sat 5/7, 2:30 PM; relaxed performance for individuals with sensory sensitivity Wed 5/4, 7:30 PM; Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-673-6300, northlight.org, $30-$89 ($15 students, pending availability).

Multiple simultaneous productions in the same area are becoming a thing for Nottage. For four days this past January, she had three shows running in New York: Clyde’s (which opens at the Goodman in September) was on Broadway along with MJ, the bio-musical about Michael Jackson for which Nottage wrote the book (that show is still running), and a chamber opera version of Intimate Apparel (composed by Ricky Ian Gordon) premiered at Lincoln Center.

Nottage lives in Brooklyn, but her work has thrived in Chicago. Ruined, her drama about women caught up in the brutal civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for which she received her first Pulitzer, got its world premiere in 2008 at the Goodman; the Goodman also presented the local premiere of her Hollywood comedy, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, in 2013, and the local premiere of Sweat in 2019. Eclipse Theatre Company, which specializes in one playwright per season, devoted their 2014 lineup to Nottage, presenting Ruined, Intimate Apparel, and a rarely produced early play, Mud, River, Stone. Ruined was also recently revived by Invictus Theatre. For some of her work (notably Ruined and Sweat, which is set in a blue-collar bar in Reading, Pennsylvania), Nottage and her frequent collaborator, director Kate Whoriskey, spent many months interviewing people who have lived the experiences she wrote about. 

Intimate Apparel (inspired in part by the story of Nottage’s great-grandmother) was the first Nottage play I saw (in 2005 in a Steppenwolf production, directed by Jessica Thebus). In the play, Esther moves among different social strata as she sews for high-society wives and a Black sex worker who is also an accomplished ragtime pianist. She also develops a friendship with a Jewish textile merchant and a romance with a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal, whom she first meets through letters.

I’ve been fascinated by the range of subjects and tone Nottage has tackled in her work ever since—from the searing raw pain of Ruined to the sly showbiz satire of Vera Stark, which incorporates a black-and-white film and a 1970s-style talk show in its portrayal of a Black actor trying to break past playing maids in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. 

I caught up with Nottage by phone late last week to talk about her work—and the way she writes about work. The following is edited from our conversation.

Kerry Reid: One of the things I’ve long admired about your writing is that you do such a beautiful job of capturing the importance of work in people’s lives and the various ways that people approach work. How does that figure in Intimate Apparel for Esther?

Lynn Nottage: I very recently worked on the opera, so I’ve been spending time with Esther in a renewed way. Usually when there’s revivals, I don’t have the opportunity to see the productions. But because I spent the last few months with Esther, I feel that I do have a renewed perspective on who she is. And certainly when I was writing the play, work was at the center of the conversation. The framing of her story is very much with her sewing machine, which was a relatively new instrument when she came to New York City. At the start of the play, the way it’s designed is that the sewing machine is very much a symbol of her oppression that she feels locked into, and it at first seems unfulfilling to her. And over the course of the play, what she comes to understand is that the sewing machine is actually her tool of liberation. Because she has a relationship with this new machine, she’s able to really spin a life for herself. 

I think that that’s an incredibly powerful thing that we often take for granted. We’re all super connected to the work that we do, but very rarely, particularly for working people, do we have an opportunity to celebrate that actual work and the importance of it in our life and the ways in which it defines every aspect of our being.

Lynn Nottage Credit Lynn Savarese

​​I always think about Esther in contrast to somebody like Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth [published in 1905]. Lily at one point tries to become a milliner, but she’s been trained to be nothing except a charming ornament. Whereas Esther has that power. So they feel like women in the same timeframe but in really different worlds.

That’s the tragedy of all Edith Wharton’s characters, from Lily Bart to Undine in The Custom of the Country. They’re really not trained to do anything other than to be companions and wives. And at the start of the play, Esther’s really lamenting the fact that she hasn’t partnered in a way with anyone. But she finally realizes she doesn’t need anyone in order to feel complete. And I think in the play, she says “to feel worthy.”

Sweat struck so many chords, obviously, with what happened in the 2016 election and the idea of the discontented and particularly white working class. As it’s a play that continues to be produced, do you find that you’re drawn into these conversations more and more because of what’s happened politically since it was first staged?

It’s interesting because the play continues to have a robust life and just, I think it was yesterday, I got a Google alert from the Guardian in London and one of the critics there was saying how everyone is still figuring out how to grapple with telling the story of Donald Trump in that election, and not finding the vocabulary to do it. So I think that it still has relevance. I think that we are in the phase of post-industrialization and trying to figure out how to reconfigure a workforce that hasn’t necessarily been fully trained to do anything else.

Clyde’s is also set in Reading, but I understand it’s more of a comedy than Sweat.

It’s very much in conversation with Sweat, but it’s an entirely different work, and you don’t need to have familiarity with Sweat to be able to enjoy Clyde’s. It’s set in a sandwich shop on a not-so-traveled stretch of road just outside of Reading. And I describe it as a liminal space. It’s a space that you only find if you’re taking a detour. It really explores the lives of a group of formerly incarcerated folks who are trying to resurrect their lives and they’re faced with a major obstacle in the form of Clyde, who is the devilish manager of the sandwich shop. And she’s just in opposition to Montrellous, who is the guru. While he’s making sandwiches, he’s also offering the other folks in the shop little pearls of wisdom that help them figure out ways to resurrect their lives. I guess he was really, for me, a way of exploring what happens to folks once their lives have been upended in ways that sometimes they’re responsible for, and also in ways sometimes they’re not. And how do you go about reassembling the pieces of yourself so that you can survive?

I wrote about Sweat for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when it had its world premiere in 2015 there, and I read an earlier version of the script, in which Stan [the owner of the bar where the story takes place] actually dies in the fight that changes the course of other lives in the play. You changed the ending so that he survives, but is left disabled and under the care of Oscar, the Dominican American barback who ends up running the place. Can you talk a bit about what that change meant?

When I was thinking about it, where I wanted to arrive, and what ultimately I want to say is that in order for us to move ahead as a culture, we have to figure out ways to take care of each other. Even when we’re in some ways broken. And that’s why I didn’t have Stan die at the end. I thought that’s not really the point of the piece. The point is to figure out how we can move to a more communal and humanistic way of taking care of each other. And very deliberately it’s Oscar who throughout the play is the person most invisible, not only to the people in the bar, but also to the audience. 

What I point out to people often who are seeing the play, at least the iterations of the plays that I’ve been involved in—Oscar is the only character who’s on the stage for the majority of time. And he’s also the only character who’s consistently working and people don’t really realize that until it’s pointed out. He’s the one who’s keeping things going. And so in the end it just felt right that he transitioned to be in a place where he is the overall caretaker, but also he recognizes that in order for the bar to survive, he has to take care of it in its totality, which means the pieces that are disregarded or broken that other people wouldn’t necessarily think to tend to.

And one of the concepts that I was certainly thinking about with Clyde’s was the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi—finding the beauty in things that are broken and rather than looking away from where the cracks and the fractures are, examining them and seeing why they exist and seeing them for what they are.

Hollis Resnik in Sunset Boulevard Joe Mazza/Bravelux Credit: Joe Mazza

Hollis Resnik 1955-2022

This year has already been a tough one for losses in Chicago theater; in February alone, we learned of the deaths of longtime actor-teacher Mary Ann Thebus, onetime Chicago actor and animal rights activist Lindsey Pearlman, and actor Larry Neumann Jr.

On Easter Sunday, Hollis Resnik, one of the brightest divas to ever dominate Chicago stages, died at Swedish Covenant Hospital at age 66 of heart failure. It would be impossible to encapsulate all the memorable roles she embodied as her career moved from ingenue to grande dame, and you don’t have to look hard to find tributes all over media and social media. 

Resnik gave an interview to Reader contributor Catey Sullivan in 2019, before playing Norma Desmond for Porchlight Music Theatre’s revival of Sunset Boulevard, and before COVID-19 shut everything down. That production turned out to be her last major role. 

“Norma is fascinating to me. She had an amazing, successful career as this young, beautiful woman—and then the roles dried up. As they do, especially for women,” noted Resnik. “The struggle for actors today is to stay working until we can get our social security. The older you get, the fewer roles there are. It’s harder on women, easier on men. That’s just the nature of the beast. I accepted it a long time ago. I truly enjoy doing smaller character parts now, but—again—those roles get fewer and fewer.”

Asked what advice she would give to those easing out of the ingenue years, Resnik said, “You have to connect. Call a friend a day. Say, ‘I’m thinking of you.’ I don’t have a huge social network anymore. I’m not a big party person, but I try to stay connected with my friends.”

This week, a lot of people in Chicago theater lost a major creative connection, friend, and touchstone. There will be a memorial for Resnik on Monday, April 25, 3-8 PM at Drake & Son Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western. Her funeral is Tuesday, April 26, 11 AM at St Matthias Church, 2310 W. Ainslie.