That Black Girl Magic

Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges on Intimate Apparel and Black Girl Magic in the Theatre

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with director Raelle Myrick-Hodges about Intimate Apparel. We spoke about her directing process and what excited her about directing this play now. Please enjoy our interview.
JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
I started theater in my mother’s home. I was a latchkey kid, so my friends would come over and we would make ‘plays’ to Ojays albums. I would ‘direct’ of course. I was hooked in 5th grade, but didn’t pursue professional theater until my late 20s. The work of Michael Bennet (Dreamgirls was the first Broadway Musical I ever saw) and everything from George C. Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe became a mentor for me and his work as writer, director, producer and arts leader inspired me to continue in professional theater.

JL: Can you talk a bit about your directing process? For instance, what is the first day like for you and the cast?
The voices of the acting artists have a tendency to lead a large part of my vision. But, I read a text for the conversation with the playwright (past and present) for their words on the page. I ask a series of questions to ‘the playwright’ and read the script for answers. Design elements are characters for me and literally participate in the acting artist process from first week of rehearsal. First rehearsal is a first date: “What are your likes and dislikes in rehearsal? What allows you strength and confidence for do your job?” This from the lead actor to the intern. ALL company members participate.

JL: Do you engage in certain exercises or rituals throughout the process?
Every play is different so every process is different. I do not wish to have a rigid structure of finding the conversation of the playwright to the audience as a formulaic process. It is unique and organic—it is found with the ensemble, not solely with my envisioning of the work.

JL: What excited you about directing PlayMakers Rep’s production of Intimate Apparel? What made you say yes?
I have never been given a ‘period piece.’ Working with new artistic direction at a company I where developed as an artist is always an honor. I said yes because I love the work that PlayMakers wishes to share with its audience.

JL: Set in 1905 Manhattan, Intimate Apparel is centered on Esther Mills, a seamstress who sews beautiful corsets for a living. What make this story relevant for today’s audience?
African-American women are currently in a state of metaphorically ‘mending’ in all facets of their life: love, work, reputation. Esther is a complicated and eloquent metaphor for today’s black women. Esther is the original ‘black girl magic’ chica—doing it all gracefully and graciously, even when broken-hearted.

JL: What advice do you have for up-and-coming directors?
Honestly? A good director is always ‘up-and-coming.’ Always challenge yourself, challenge your arts landscape and do it because you wish to share, not lecture with an audience. The best ‘advice’ is to work on projects you LOVE—for there is never enough money and opening nights to hold you in your artistry without to commitment to each work as its own entity that deserves its own journey. Try not to limit your perspective on your audience and make smart work allowing others to rise to the ideas you are sharing in your work. And lastly, be KIND to your company—from fancy lead actor to first time intern, everyone is present because they want the best work and they should be treated with the utmost respect—because theater cannot be done alone.

JL: What next for you as a director?
I am working in dance for the first time with Urban Bush Women (Brooklyn) this spring as well as supporting Pace University in a production of Polaroid Stories by Naomi Iizuka—the first play I ever directed! I am working with a new ensemble of artists called Elephant Room and we begin presenting new projects in the fall of 2017.

Jacqueline Lawton is a dramaturg at PlayMakers Repertory Company and an assistant professor in the Department of Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her newest play, Intelligence, is part of the Power Plays project at Arena Stage in Washington D.C.