While cleaning out her grandmother’s house, Lynn Nottage found a sepia passport photograph of her great-grandmother holding her two daughters. Nottage knew her great-grandmother had been a seamstress who married a Barbadian immigrant, but she didn’t know much more.
Inspired by her family history, Nottage set out to write Intimate Apparel, a fictionalized story of Esther, a hardworking African-American seamstress who makes a living sewing lingerie in 1905 Manhattan. Under the direction of Jennifer L. Nelson, the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies gave a poignant, stirring performance.
Esther, played superbly by Summer Brown, serves customers ranging from an upper-class white married woman to a black prostitute, and Esther has the unique ability to connect with them equally. But at 35, she’s an old maid living in a boardinghouse run by Mrs. Dickson (Amber Chaney), and she’s terribly lonely. So when George (Philip Kershaw), a man working on the Panama Canal begins writing Esther letters, she’s excited at the possibility of spending her life with someone.
Brown captured Esther’s multifaceted personality – the grit and determination that have kept her going since she migrated north at 17; the romanticism that urges her to take a chance on George; and the sisterhood that she shares with both the wealthy Mrs. Van Buren (Rachel Grandizio), who helps her read her letters from George, and with the prostitute Mayme (Agyeiwaa Asante). While she can seemingly transcend class barriers with these women, race and religion stand between her and charming fabric salesman Mr. Marks, who is a Hasidic Jew, played with great attention to detail by Noah Israel.
The beautiful set, designed by Lydia Francis, featured background photographs of 1905 Manhattan, flanked by two distressed, multi-level urban dwellings, and four separate sets that served as the women’s bedrooms and Mr. Marks’ fabric shop.
Sound design by Mark Anduss included ragtime piano motifs that set the mood throughout the play. At the end of each act, Esther posed for a “photo,” with a projected caption reading “Unidentified Negro” – a cold reminder of how her identity was lost with the passage of time and the passing of those who knew her story.
Many issues that the play tackles, especially those involving religious tenets, race, gender and sexuality, seem relevant today. Esther feels pressured to marry to be accepted in her community and Mrs. Van Buren feels repressed in her marriage, condemned for not having children. There’s a certain amount of “give and take” in relationships, Mrs. Dickson tells Esther, but how much is too much? What is the value of manual labor in an industrial world? Esther’s idealism might ultimately win out, but her strength carries on in this tender, touching drama.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Intimate Apparel plays through October 17, 2015 at the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center – at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193, in College Park, Maryland. Tickets can be purchased online.