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The intimate journey of bringing 'Intimate Apparel' to Boise

A staged reading of Intimate Apparel is set for Sunday, Feb. 25 at Boise Contemporary Theater.
Leta Harris Neustaedter
A staged reading of Intimate Apparel is set for Sunday, Feb. 25 at Boise Contemporary Theater.

Intimate Apparel, penned by Lynn Nottage, the first and only woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, has been a critical and audience favorite in productions around the United States.

The New York Times has said Nottage’s is “a rare, vital important voice.” And The Independent listed Intimate Apparel as one of the 40 best plays ever written.

Yet, it has yet to come to Idaho … until now.

“This has been on my radar for about 11ish years. It is a journey. Me and this play, we've got some history,” said Leta Harris Neustaedter, producer, writer and co-star in her staged reading of Intimate Apparel, set for Feb. 25 at Boise Contemporary Theater. ”So, I finally just had to do it myself.”

Neustaedter visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to preview what has long been a passion project.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Hi, I'm George Prentice. We started this month on this broadcast with a visit to Clyde's by Lynn Nottage at Boise Contemporary Theater. We had a chance to visit with the artistic team and now we're invited back to BCT this Sunday, February 25th for a staged reading of Intimate Apparel, another award winning play from Lynn Nottag - the first and only woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice. So here comes Leta Harris Neusteadter: actor, singer, musician, counselor, mentor and so much more,,, and a friend to this broadcast and she will bring us intimate apparel. Hi, Leta.


PRENTICE: It is more than a happy coincidence that this is Black History Month, and this play seems perfect.

NEUSTAEDTER: The story itself is just beautiful and it's touching. It's nuanced. It's about people looking for connection. So, there's so many things about it that just reach right into your heart. But the extra special cool thing about it is that the way this play came about was Lynn was helping her grandmother move, and she found a photo that showed her grandmother as a child with her great grandmother. And this is the only time Lynn Nottage had seen a picture of her great grandma. And she was like, tell me about this striking woman. So, she found out that her great grandmother was from Barbados and had moved to New York as a seamstress in 1905-ish and had worked sewing, you know, intimate apparel, corsets and camisoles and such. She became a pen pal for a man in Barbados who was helping build. He was a laborer building the Panama Canal. So, he would write letters about what that experience was like. But that's all she could find out. Because, you know, for black people, our histories aren't documented very well. So, she ran into a lot of dead ends. But in her research, to try to find out more about her great grandmother, she just found out more about the time and the neighborhood that she lived in, and what kinds of people she would have encountered. You know, where would she buy her fabrics, and what were her clients like?

PRENTICE: And her clients, by the way, were all classes of people, right?

NEUSTAEDTER: Right. She had, you know, the rich white ladies on Fifth Avenue, but also she had the prostitutes or the sex workers and the tenderloin district. And with that, she was like, well, this is the story. So, she wrote this poem, you know, inspired by the life of her great grandmother. And it's a beautiful, beautiful journey of this woman's, of this woman's life. Um, in a time where there were so many barriers on so many people about who you could be connected to in society, you know, there's so much right and wrong between classes, between races, you know, there's just so many things kind of keeping people from being able to really connect. And this and this play really explores that.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about connection. This has to be a passion project for you. So how long has this been on your radar?

NEUSTAEDTER: This has been on my radar for about 11-ish years. It is a journey. Me and this play, we've got some history. Yeah, it's a beautiful story, but it also I don't know, you know, you never know. That's one of the reasons why for Black History Month, you know, it not only speaks to the idea of the history within the play and the story itself, but also the very real dynamics that we have here in the Treasure Valley where, you know, we don't have any theater companies that are run by people of color. It's not people of color who are getting to make the decisions about which stories hit a stage. Um, the boardrooms and the, you know, all of the people that are involved in making those decisions decide which are the stories that should be told on stage. And to me, you have beautiful stories like this that fall through the cracks, because maybe through somebody else's lens, they don't seem powerful enough or they don't seem whatever enough, they're not going to bring in the eye. Whatever the reasons are that people decide, nah, this isn't the this isn't the story we're going to tell. Um, so for me, it's been a frustrating journey of having kind of closed doors with other people telling me. Whether or not they felt like it was an important story for black people, but me being the actual only black person in those conversations, saying, I think it's important. So, um, so yeah, I mean, I finally just had to do it myself.

PRENTICE:  I've been hearing that you've been working on getting some very special and particular props and costumes. I know it's a reading, but this is a theatrical moment too.

NEUSTAEDTER: You know, far be it for me to not make things difficult on myself. But of course, I want to try to shove in some costumes and some props and some this and that to bring it to life, because I've been waiting 11 years to get it on a stage. So, we've been hunting down old sewing machines that could look like they were from that time period, and corsets. Well, the community did this beautiful gesture of sponsoring a corset so that we could actually have corsets that represent each of the corsets that she makes throughout the story. I'm trying to do as much as I can get away with, with my poor actors still being. And I'm one of those actors, by the way. You know, we're still dependent on scripts because it still is a reading. But yet I'm having us handling all of this stuff. And, George, I don't know how it's all going to come together, but maybe that'll be part of the draw, that the audience is a moment.

PRENTICE: It is Sunday and you've got to be excited.

NEUSTAEDTER: I am. There is excitement underneath this pile of all of these other emotions that I feel. I feel a huge responsibility with this project because not only to Lynn to be a steward of her beautiful story and to do justice to her beautiful story. If I'm going to insist that this should be on a stage, I need to have it be really compelling when it finally does.

PRENTICE: Let's get the particulars here. Intimate Apparel is at Boise Contemporary Theater Sunday. It's a matinee right at 2 p.m.. Do I have that right?

NEUSTAEDTER: That is correct. And I want to do a shout out because Boise Contemporary Theater, um, this isn't part of their programing. They are donating the space to allow us to do this. Also, I want to give a shout out to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, because it was actually their racial justice ministry that approached me after one of our anti-racism meetings for the arts and culture orgs, where we talked about allyship and how you can show up. And do you have space that somebody else could use, or could you fund somebody else's project? And so they approached me and said, “We're interested in what is it that you want to do? What do you want to create?” And I said, “I've got this beautiful story. I want to bring it to Boise”. And they said, “We will help you do that.” So, it's been a beautiful showing of collaborative community effort to bring this to life.

PRENTICE: She is the always wonderful Leta Harris Neustaedter. Great good luck on Sunday. And thanks for giving me some time.

NEUSTAEDTER: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.

Find reporter George Prentice@georgepren

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