When Dawnn Lewis saw the play “Intimate Apparel” a few years ago, she put it on her list of to-do productions. But when she was asked to read for a part in the play now on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse through Dec. 6, it was not quite what she envisioned.
“I always imagined myself playing Esther,” said Lewis of the turn-of-century New York drama. But instead of the quiet seamstress looking to find herself a mate, Lewis was asked to try on the role of Mrs. Dickinson for size, and she has found a way to make the part her own.
“Sheldon envisions in the role that I was kind of like a big sister more than a house matron, and he trusted in my acting ability to make it work,” said Lewis of director Sheldon Epps.
So Lewis, who says she tends to be more effervescent, slowed her body movements down, deepened her voice, donned a wig laced with gray hair and is playing what she describes as an interesting supporting role.
“Those roles are very important. Most interesting support roles are. And they make the lead character look stronger,” said Lewis, who adds that she relishes the ability to “flow between leading lady and character roles.”
One of her top challenges with the role, is keeping Mrs. Dickinson consistent; keeping her real and grounded.
“She is wearing her age, and I have to find the balance in her own personal dilemma with the humor and bravado that she uses to get through it. It’s a delicate dance.”
“‘Intimate Apparel’” really is a timeless and universal story of people demonstrating how everyone just simply wants to be loved,” said Lewis.
“It has nothing to do with race . . . . We all want the same thing, no matter what your age, or color; no matter what your background. We all want to be understood and find a way to feel better about who we are.”
While most people will most likely best remember Lewis for her role in the television college sitcom “A Different World.” the veteran actress says “Intimate Apparel” is actually coming home for her.
“I was born and raised in theater in New York City. I started dancing at 7, singing at 4 and I got my first acting job at 11. I was the lead singer of my own band.”
Her theatrical roles include performing in the musical version of “Sister Act,” appearing in a revival of the “Wiz,” as well as performing in “The Tap Dance Kid.”
All of these experiences and more have kept her working, said Lewis, and while she would definitely like to snag some of the leading lady roles that the handful of other Black actresses in Hollywood have been able to obtain, she realizes that in order to avoid the bag people often want to put entertainers into, she has to either work around it, or carve out her own path.
“I could just have easily been playing Esther, but my playing Mrs. Dickinson in ‘Intimate Apparel’ gives me the opportunity to stretch and continue working.”
“Intimate Apparel” runs Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. Single show ticket prices range from $22-$62. The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.