From the Providence Journal, January 26th, 2014:
Mia Ellis, a graduate of the Brown/Trinity Rep Master's of Fine Arts Program, has performed in both Trinity Rep's "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Good People". She now returns to Trinity for the lead in the Rhode Island premiere of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” a touching play about a lonely black seamstress who takes a chance on love. The show opens in previews Thursday and runs through March 2.
Mia Ellis can’t complain. The actress, who was one of three young actors to join Trinity Rep back in the summer, has had nothing but stage time ever since.
Ellis kicked off the season with a part in Trinity’s visceral “The Grapes of Wrath,” and followed that up with a guest spot at the Gamm for David Lindsay-Abaire’s riotous “Good People.”
Now she returns to Trinity for the lead in the Rhode Island premiere of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” a touching play about a lonely black seamstress who takes a chance on love. The show opens in previews Thursday and runs through March 2.
“Intimate Apparel” is set in 1905 in a New York rooming house where Esther Mills creates elegant undergarments for both uptown and downtown clients. She has been saving her money to open a beauty parlor where black women will be pampered as much as the white clients she sews for.
But then an equally lonely Caribbean man named George enters her life. George is a laborer on the Panama Canal, and in the opening scene of the play, pens a sweet, poetic letter that moves Esther, even though she is illiterate and has to have it read to her.
Soon George, played by Joe Wilson Jr., proposes marriage, sight unseen. Esther jumps at the chance.
“It’s like online dating in 1905,” said Ellis. “It’s like clicking on the profile of someone you don’t even know.”
Nevertheless, Esther finds George passionate, and falls in love. But the relationship was not to be, in part because it’s based on a lie.
Actually, Ellis has been around longer than last summer. In the fall of 2011, while still a student in the Brown/Trinity Rep Master's of Fine Arts Program, she appeared in Trinity’s main stage production of “Clybourne Park.” The following year, after graduating, she turned up in the cast of “A Christmas Carol.”
By then, Ellis had an apartment in New York and was getting work in TV and commercials, all the while working on a solo show she began at Brown.
“When I was offered the job at Trinity,” she said, “I had to think about it.”
What Ellis came up with was a sort of compromise, where she will split her time between Providence and New York. “Intimate Apparel” is her last show with Trinity this season, so she’ll be leaving for New York in March and making the rounds of auditions.
Ellis said she couldn’t help but think what it would be like to become a member of the Trinity company when she was at Brown. But she never dreamed it would happen.
“It’s a blessing to have this home where people care for me,” she said. “To have this solid ground is wonderful.”
Ellis, who dodged questions about her age, grew up in Mississippi, where she majored in voice at Tougaloo College. Her mom worked for the Public Broadcasting System there, and introduced Mia and her sister to the arts as children.
From Tougaloo, she went right to a coveted slot in the MFA acting program at Brown — without a lot of theater experience, or at least not as much as some acting students enrolled at the school.
But that didn’t faze her. “I prepared for the audition,” she said. “That’s all I could do. I couldn’t be anybody else.”
Ellis said when she entered Tougaloo she had thoughts of becoming a pediatrician. But she opted for music and began thinking about the stage.
“It didn’t concern me that I didn’t have a lot of acting experience,” she said, adding that she has no regrets about picking theater over medicine.
Nottage’s play debuted in 2003 at Baltimore’s Center Stage, and opened off-Broadway the following year with Rhode Island College grad and Oscar nominee Viola Davis in the lead.
Ellis said that Nottage called her play a “meditation on loneliness.” It’s the journey of a woman who spends her life working and wakes up to wonder what it all means, she said. And feeling maybe it would be good to share it with someone.
Even though things don’t work out between Esther and George, at least she was willing to take the leap and give a relationship a try.
“She’s a good, decent woman who has to go through a painful experience to realize that she comes out a better person,” said Ellis.
But there are no good guys or bad guys in this play, she said. What happens, said Ellis, is “just human.”
“Intimate Apparel” opens Thursday in previews and runs through March 2 at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., Providence. Tickets are $28-$68. Call (401) 351-4242, or visit trinityrep.com.