When playwright Lynn Nottage wanted to write a memorable play about African-American women, she turned to her own family. ?

Her wonderful recent play,Intimate Apparel, is based on her great grandmother’s life experiences. ?She was a skilled seamstress?in turn-of-the -century New York City, who specialized in ladies intimate apparel.

She began a correspondence with a Panama Canal laborer from the West Indies and later married him in New York. ?But, so little is known about her beyond that; it is an open field for a talented writer to fill in the gaps, and Ms. Nottage is every bit up to that challenge. ?This wonderful character-driven play beautifully connects the dots in the unfinished history to tell her story.

Filled with rich characters from the wealth of New York City’s varied groups and personalities, she creates one fascinating situation after another without resorting to a single stereotype. ?This graduate of Brown and Yale is?no stranger to formal dramatic training, but here her characters have special life with little or no academic formalism. ?It is impossible to leave the theater without the feeling that you’ve just gotten to know an entire cross section of a vanished era of New York.

Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater at 1650 North Halsted has mounted an impressive production of Ms. Nottage’s masterwork under the direction of Jessica Thebus. ?This Midwest premiere brings this play to life in the finest tradition of the Steppenwolf. ?From Todd Rosenthal’s superlative set to the excellent ensemble Ms. Thebus has assembled. Velma Austin (Esther) is the alter ego of Ms. Nottage’s great grandmother and her wonderfully winning performance almost carries the show on its own. But perhaps Eli Goodman as a Jewish cloth merchant demonstrates how superbly Ms. Nottage can create characters out of her world.

Simple stated this is the finest play by an African-American woman since Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and like its predecessor, it received The New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play. You have until March 13 to catch this one and urge you to do. Check at: 312-335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org.

The New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play. You have until March 13 to catch this one and urge you to do. Check at: 312-335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org.

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Jeff Nelson

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