Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Lynn Nottage, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2008 play Ruined will have her Broadway debut this March with her newest work, Sweat, and says that all of her plays are about people who have been marginalized in some way, but mostly notably African-American women, who are usually at the center of her plays. Intimate Apparel had its debut in 2003 and was written shortly after the death of Nottage's mother. After finding a photograph of her great-grandmother, Nottage realized that her family had not preserved their stories. "If my family hadn't preserved our stories, and history certainly had not, then who would?"
Nottage knew that her great-grandmother was a Barbadian seamstress who sewed intimate apparel for ladies in New York City early in the twentieth century. A correspondence with a handsome Barbadian who was working on the Panama Canal led to a short-lived marriage. Drawing inspiration from this story, Nottage follows in the footsteps of playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, who also have written compellingly about women giving up or losing sight of their own dreams and ambitions, often while supporting a man's.
The story takes place in 1905 Manhattan. We are introduced to seamstress Esther Mills, portrayed with heartiness and heart by Rasool Jahan. She is a talented and hard-working woman who, recently turned thirty-five, has seen many of her roommates marry and leave the boarding house owned by Mrs. Dickerson, a humorously wise Kathryn Hunter-Williams. Esther is lonely and longs to have a relationship based on love and respect, unlike the women she's seen marry for privilege or security. In the meantime, her social contact comes primarily from white clients like Mrs. Van Buren, a whimsical Allison Altman. The relationship between these two women calls to mind the particular intimacy of servant and employer on shows like "Downton Abbey"; each side shares a bit of herself but only so much.
Elsewhere in Esther's world is Mayme, a prostitute portrayed tartly but vividly by Shanelle Nicole Leonard. Mayme has some of the best comedic moments in the play; when asked if she would go to church with Esther, she answers, "It don't feel right to go to one's home when you're not on speaking terms." Rounding our Esther's world is Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant, portrayed convincingly by Benjamin Curns, who sells Esther the fine fabrics for her garments. The religious codes strictly governing his wardrobe and prohibiting physical contact with women other than his wife and relatives make it easy to draw parallels to modern immigrants to this country. All of these people, not just Esther, are somehow contained or even trapped by their lives. None are satisfied, and each see greener grass beyond the fence.
Through a mutual acquaintance Esther begins to receive letters from a Caribbean man named George Armstrong, a hauntingly authentic Myles Bullock. George is a manual laborer, building the Panama Canal. Being illiterate, Esther turns to Mrs. Van Buren to read the letters to her and write her responses. But Esther doesn't let go of other dreams, continuing to save any money she can in hopes of opening a beauty parlor that will cater to African American women. The correspondence becomes a courtship, and eventually Esther accepts George's proposal of marriage, sight unseen, even though she has begun to develop a barely conscious affection for Mr. Marks. George's arrival in New York will, unsurprisingly, complicate things.
Raelle Myrick-Hodges' direction keeps Ms. Nottage's words front and center, and the entire cast feels deeply immersed in their characters. The production has many poetic moments, such as Esther and Mr. Marks both touching a bolt of fabric, allowing their hands to linger on the cloth though they cannot touch each other. Scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee is beautiful and economical, making full use of the performance space. One of the highlights of the production design is the projection work by Dominic Abbenante, which transforms the background into a bustling New York tenement street, then a muddy Panama Canal construction site, then a beautiful rain shower that washes over the whole set. Costume designer Bobbi Owen celebrates her fiftieth production with PlayMakers, and her beautiful corsets and period costumes heighten the authenticity and provide symbolic underscoring to key moments. The lighting design by Xavier Pierce shapes the mood at key moments, like a splash of red light that glows in Mr. Marks' shop as Esther runs her hands across the back of his coat.
In a show that emphasizes historical accuracy, the only disjointing moments come when what sounds like an electric keyboard plays the ragtime music used between scenes. It would seem that a more authentic instrument could have been found to evoke the music of the time. Most glaring was the use of a theme that resembled the melody of the seventies Shuggie Otis hit, "Strawberry Letter 23."
PlayMakers dramaturg Jacqueline E. Lawton says this production of Intimate Apparel reminds us of the "complex and restrictive social and cultural expectations of race, class, and gender at the turn of the last century." If more recent events like the women's protest marches are any indication, these expectations still bind, even if corsets have fallen out of fashion. As the playwright has said, it is the stories that unite us, show us our similarities, and help us to intimately know each other. When those stories are not told, or not allowed to be told, the barrier grows higher.
Intimate Apparel is presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company at the Paul Green Theatre at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill, NC through February 12, 2017. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased online at www.playmakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529.
Playwright: Lynn Nottage