December 7, 2019

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Her turn in the spotlight

City actress welcomes starring role in WJT play Intimate Apparel

It’s an exciting moment for actress Beverly Ndukwu as she prepares to perform her first leading role in a major Winnipeg stage production.

Ndukwu has been seen before, notably in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and in the Manitoba Theatre for Young People show Danny, King of the Basement.

She has also booked significant supporting roles in many of the films that have been shot in Winnipeg, including two Hallmark movies, the yet-to-be-released thriller Nomis, opposite Henry Cavill, and the upcoming Breakthrough, in which she shares the screen with Chrissy Metz and Topher Grace.

In the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre production of Intimate Apparel by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, Ndukwu is front and centre in the role of Esther, an African-American seamstress living and working in New York City, circa 1905. Esther creates high-end undergarments for a clientele that ranges from socialites to prostitutes.

In Intimate Apparel, Beverly Ndukwu portrays a seamstress who sews elegant undergarments for socialites and prostitutes. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

In Intimate Apparel, Beverly Ndukwu portrays a seamstress who sews elegant undergarments for socialites and prostitutes. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Still unmarried in her 30s, she agrees to marry a charming Caribbean islander, though she nurtures a forbidden love for the Jewish shopkeeper who supplies her with her fabrics.

The story is inspired by Nottage’s own great-grandmother, and is thus a few generations removed from the experience of Ndukwu’s own life. She was born in Brandon to parents who emigrated from Nigeria. She moved to Winnipeg around age six and went to high school in East Kildonan. Yet she relishes the aspects of her character’s life from more than a century ago.

"It’s interesting because she is an entrepreneur at a time where it wasn’t necessarily easy to be an entrepreneur and be a coloured woman," she says. "Esther is such a multi-dimensional character. She’s brave and bold in her choices, although she doesn’t have that much experience with men."

Ndukwu says she is struck especially by the vast differences in the realm of romance, particularly in the age of Tinder.

"We’re in an age of technology and it’s so easy to swipe right," she says. "So that’s not available back then. It’s the old school: you have to court someone and put that effort in and engage in communication and it leaves Esther with a vulnerability. So it was nice to embrace that and connect to it."

As for the play’s milieu of unbreakable barriers between races and classes, she says: "It was not as easy back then, but those issues we still deal with today. It gives you a moment to sit back and consider all that."

Of course, the role allows her to go deeper into the world of Winnipeg theatre, which she says has embraced her.

"I am fortunate enough to have such amazing people in the cast. There’s not one play that I’ve done that where I haven’t walked away with a really good friend," she says. "So, yeah, I can’t help but feel welcomed into the theatre."

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage based Intimate Apparel on the life of her great-grandmother. (Michael Zorn / Invision files)

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage based Intimate Apparel on the life of her great-grandmother. (Michael Zorn / Invision files)


 A life in theatre wasn’t necessarily Ndukwu’s first choice in professions. In fact, she sidelines as a senior mammography technologist and a diagnostic X-ray technologist.

"I work at a breast health clinic casually and I also work at a chiropractic clinic doing X-rays," she says.

The choice of a medical career was linked with her own sadder experience with the medical profession due to her battle with sickle cell anemia, a disease that affects the body’s red blood cells.

"I spent a lot of time in hospitals," she says.

In 2007, Beverly’s younger sister Andrea died from the disorder. That led Beverly to an advocacy role, starting the Sickle Circle of Manitoba to raise awareness for Manitobans living with the disease.

"I have had a loss with it, but I feel the more it’s brought up, the better," she says. "It’s about increasing awareness.

"It’s trying to start the conversation and have the right kind of conversation," she says.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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