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SEEN UP NORTH: Play based on Bajans

Tony Best

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BAJANS AND CANADIANS like a good tale, especially one about affairs of the heart and feisty women with a strong work ethic.
Then there is the lovesick man living far away whose letter stirs the emotions of a woman in search of a steady relationship.
Watching that drama unfold on stage can be a delightful experience, often one out of this world. That is what’s happening in Canada at Centaur Theatre in Old Montreal where Intimate Apparel, Lynn Nottage’s best known play, is being staged.
Nottage, a Brooklyn resident and one of America’s leading playwrights who captured America’s leading literary honour, the Pulitzer Prize, three years ago for Ruined, is the great-granddaughter of a Barbadian and it was the life experience of that late 19th and early 20th century seamstress in New York that inspired Nottage to create the drama.
Barbadians in Montreal who go to see Intimate Apparel will enjoy it.
It brings to the stage what they might have heard about how Bajan men coped with loneliness spawned by the hard work involved in helping to build one of the world’s greatest wonders – the Panama Canal.
Thousands of men left Barbados and Jamaica more than a century ago and toiled 12-hour days and nights to make the dream of the canal become a reality.
When they weren’t working and fighting off tropical diseases, they yearned for female companionship and that’s where Intimate Apparel comes in.
For it was Esther, played by Lucinda Davis, who used her extensive knowledge of fabric and her skill as a seamstress to make beautiful undergarments for women of all social classes, from high-society women to prostitutes.
Davis’ performance was quite appealing. Esther had made her way from North Carolina to New York where she worked as a seamstress and in the process amassed a small fortune. But at age 35, living in a rooming house, she began to think of romance as many of her neighbours got married and started families, leaving her to spend evenings alone or talking to the landlady.
That’s when a letter began to stir Esther’s emotional fires. It came from George, a Barbadian in Panama toiling on the canal, who was expressing his love for the seamstress. Because she couldn’t read or write, Esther had to get friends to reply to George and eventually they decided to wed in 1905.
The character played by Davis is central to the play’s success.
The play’s director Micheline Chevrier received top marks for creating an atmosphere of intimacy on stage.
In an interview shortly after she received the 2009 Pulitzer, Nottage spoke about her Barbadian great grandmother, whom she described as “quite a woman”.