“Intimate Apparel” by Lynn Nottage, Produced and Directed by Seth Ghitelman is now playing at Silver Spring Stage in Silver Spring, Maryland. The play actually opened at Center Stage in Baltimore, Maryland in 2003. It then was produced off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre in 2004. It has had productions in several prestigious venues, including the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Nottage is the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (“Ruined” in 2009 and “Sweat” in 2017). Nottage based the play on her own great-grandmother, and the main character Esther reflects the respect and love Nottage has for this woman.
The play takes place in 1905 in New York City and centers on Esther (Christine M. Champion), a black seamstress who lives in a boarding house for women and sews intimate apparel for wealthy white women and black prostitutes. She has managed to put money away in hopes of opening a beauty parlor for black women who she will treat as royally as the rich white women who are her clients. She starts corresponding with a Caribbean man, George Armstrong (DeJeanette Horne), who is working on the building of the Panama Canal. The seamstress is illiterate and must rely on her friends, Mrs. Dickson (Letha Remington) and Mayme (Patrice E. Campbell) and rich patron, Mrs. Van Buren (Hana Clarice) to read her letters and answer themes.
Eventually, George comes to New York, but not before Esther seems to be girlishly attracted to an Orthodox Jewish shopkeeper, Mr. Marks (David Dieudonné). Esther and Mr. Marks share a unique appreciation of fabric and weaving. Of course, this in 1904 and for both of them, any kind of relationship outside that of shopkeeper and client is verboten both for social and religious reasons. As the complications start unfolding, Esther’s naivete is dissolved. In the end, it is Esther’s strong determination that allows her to refocus her own goals when her faith is shaken by those closest to her.
“Intimate Apparel’ gives us our own private look into African-American life in New York City in 1904 and dresses it in truth, love, kindness and hope.
Champion’s captures Esther’s optimism and innocence. Her speech captures the character’s rural, poor southern roots. In the intimacy of this theatre, Champion’s expressive eyes and smile nonverbally relay her emotions to the audience. This is a tremendous asset in her scenes with Mr. Marks. It is her eyes and smile, or lack of smile, that gives us insight into Esther’s inner feelings toward Marks, especially in the scene when she surreptitiously touches his collar and in Act II when she goes to his shop after she is married. Champion lets us know the seamstress is still attracted to him.
Campbell is sultry and hard as the prostitute who becomes Esther’s friend. Their climatic scene is gripping, and the two actresses masterfully convey the conflict of friendship, betrayal and, finally, understanding.
Horne’s role is more complicated. As the romantic correspondent to Esther, he seems complex, very understanding, spiritual and as guileless as Esther. When he arrives in New York, we see a more manipulative man who pushes his own agenda on Esther, finally showing his greed and hedonism. Horne delivers an extremely strong performance from one where we care for him to one where he has become unlikeable. However, Horne also gives us a view of the plight of black males in American in the early 20th Century. The scene between George and Esther when he convinces her to trust him again is particularly compelling.
Dieudonné’s portrayal of Mr. Marks is just about perfect. His accent, body language and tone are remarkably reflective of Orthodox Jew’s of that era. He also exposes his own loneliness and his strong feeling for Esther through subtle gestures and eye contact, or lack of eye contact.
Remington is Esther’s busybody landlady and friend. Her most memorable scene is when she tells Esther the truth about her own life. Remington takes this chance to grab the audience and present a woman much more complicated than she appears. I would like to see another play about Mrs. Dickson because, at that point, Remington’s church-going landlady becomes something other than a stereotype.
Clarice is the wealthy, but infertile, Mrs. Van Buren. She is Esther’s client, wanting sexy lingerie to beguile her spouse. Van Buren’s husband blames his wife for her lack of children. He also does not pay much attention to her, and in her own emptiness, she comes to think of herself as Esther’s friend. Of course, that time in our history will not allow that. This becomes evident when she asks Esther to take her to a black singer’s performance. When Esther states she would like to accompany Mrs. Van Buren to the opera, the gulf between them is evident. (Esther would never be allowed in the theatre.) Clarice’s development of the character allows us to view her in the context of her times. Mrs. Van Buren, for all her money, is more trapped by her social position than Esther is buy her poverty.
Ghitelman’s direction allows the actors to express these very hidden parts of their character’s souls to the audience. Having George read his letters in the audience gave them an ephemeral feeling. We never truly know if they are real or imaginative. That allows us to accept the changes in George in Act II.
The Set Design is by Joy Wyne. It is a permanent set where only small changes are made (a cloth on or off a table, a quilt gone from a bed). The soft gauzy peach and white curtains act as backdrops and are used for exits and entrances. They also sweetly underscore Esther’s character.
The Costume Design by Stacey Thomann Hamilton is superb. Three of the ladies all wear a fancy corset. I like the touch of having Esther’s corset look a little frumpy. All the clothing is in period, and Mr. Mark’s costume includes features one would expect to see on an Orthodox Jew of that time.
The Lighting Designer is Katherine Offutt. She carefully lights the various areas to frame each scene including the area off the stage where George writes his letters.
Jeff Miller’s Sound Design, especially the wonderful piano music, helps develop the story without being intrusive.
“Intimate Apparel’ gives us our own private look into African-American life in New York City in 1904 and dresses it in truth, love, kindness and hope. Congratulations again to Silver Spring Stage in bringing us a play that opens up a new viewpoint to our world.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: This production is recommended for mature audiences due to language and sexual situations.
Note: Susan Brall has had a theatrical relationship with Silver Spring Stage. This did not affect her review.