Posted in Book Stuff, Writing Life

*Intimate Apparel

On Saturday, A and I got to go out, just the two of us, for the first time in ages. We had tickets to see Intimate Apparel, which is part of a program where the Canadian Stage Company has linked up with Random House to match books and plays. I’ll be facilitating a discussion this Saturday March 6th, 10:30 am to noon, at Nicholas Haure Books at 45 Front St. East (if you’re in Toronto, I hope you’ll come!). The Singing Fire was chosen as the companion book to this play and there are a number of meeting points. But first–the story of how we got to the theatre.

We were to meet my sister-in-law and her boyfriend at a subway stop. I knew this wasn’t a good idea. I felt it in my bones, but ignored my bones because they were helping us out. We took a more circuitous route to meet them, and we had to go up to the exit, as they were waiting outside the turnstile, where we’d hand off kids to them.

It doesn’t sound like a bad idea, unless you have kids, and you know how long it takes to get them out the door. And you know that changing trains adds time that you’ll have lost getting them ready. We left a little late and we had to wait a little longer for the train. So we ran up the stairs to the turnstile, handed the kids over with scarcely a hello and goodbye, and ran down again. There was now a chance we’d miss the start of the play.

On the train, biting my lip, I thought of a contigency plan. If there was no bus at the other end, we’d hop in a cab. At Union Station, A and I dashed out of the train, ran for the exit (frantically studying the signs, not that way, this way). We sprinted for the bus, made it, and then the driver told us that he would be waiting there for 15 minutes. Out of the bus, run across the street, grab a cab. Now, folks, I had the address in my pocket as I had googled the theatre and examined the map before we left.

Except that there was no theatre there. The Canadian Stage Company’s building was across the street from where the theatre should have been, but was not, and I ran inside, banging on a door until someone came out and told me that the theatre was actually right next to the subway stop, which we had left sometimes earlier, and run for the bus.

Out we went, running back along Front Street, jogging and waving at cabs. Walking, catching my breath, wondering what I’d do if I missed the play, cursing google. Finally a cab stopped and we rode back to the theatre, arriving with 10 minutes to spare.

It was a very good play. The acting was excellent, the script solid (except for one moment that jumped out at me as out of context, but I’ll pass over that). Lynn Nottage, the playwright, has won numerous prizes, including a Pulitzer for Ruined.

Intimate Apparel is about an African-American seamstress in 1905 who sew undergarments for a white society woman and an African-American prostitute. Living in a boarding house for “coloured” women, she corresponds with a man in Panama, who is working on the canal, and buys her coth from a sympathetic Jewish vendor in NYC.

Points of contact with The Singing Fire: sewing, prostitution, lives of women, class differences, turn of the century immigrant neighbourhoods, fertility issues.

Princess Margaretha of Sweden sewing for the Red Cross 1914

I was most fascinated by a small but central detail in the set: the treadle sewing machine. (No surprise there for those of you who follow my blog). I was trying to identify it by its salient features during the intermission, walking around to get different angles, taking off my boots to stand on a seat in the front row to see if I could examine it more carefully. I knew it wasn’t a 19th century Singer treadle. That was easy to determine because it didn’t have the fancy decals. I didn’t think it was a class 15 machine because I didn’t see a tension knob on the front plate, but couldn’t say for sure as I still wasn’t high enough to see clearly. But the stage hand who was getting the set ready for the second act, kindly wrote down the serial number for me.

Singer has digitalized its serial numbers, for no gain of its own, so I was able to determine that the sewing machine in the play was made in Clydebank, Scotland at the Kilbowie factory. It is a 15k Singer, made in 1922, and so is about 17 years out of period with the play. My curiosity was sated.

As an aside, Lisa Berry, who plays Mayme (the prostitute) is going to be Lady MacBeth in an upcoming production. I’d love to see that.



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

13 thoughts on “*Intimate Apparel

  1. Oh I’ve had arrivals at the theatre like that!! I’m very glad you got there in time and that it was good. And I just knew that sewing machine was going to have its moment of glory. 🙂

  2. I hope you have fun at the discussion on Sat. And I love it that you’re becoming an expert on sewing machines. It’s that attention to detail that’s so important to writing (and sewing) I guess. As for the trip, yes all too familiar!

  3. Oh, that’s JUST the sort of thing that drives me *mad.* Hate, hate, haaaaate being late for the theatre or even just worrying that we might be cutting it fine. Drives me to distraction, and I was feeling anxious reading this post because I thought you were going to tell us you were left locked out until a new scene. So glad that wasn’t so! Also you’ve reminded me I have The Singing Fire to read – lovely!

  4. gosh, I’m glad you got there in time and could settle in and watch, observe, see that treadle working (or imagine it working).

    (still no package here for me—I’ve got a tracker on it)

    1. Louise, it’s ironic because my last novel was quite a bit about sewing workshops in the late 19th c, but I learned much more about sewing after the fact. My characters influence me (like my children!) to learn new things.

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