Passions and emotions fly free in Lynn Nottage’s play “Intimate Apparel,” now playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks. In a mesmerizing performance, Rita Cole plays her role as Esther, a 35-year-old African American seamstress who has lived in a Lower Manhattan boarding house for the past 18 years aching for love in 1905 New York.
From the first scene, “Intimate Apparel” grabs your attention. Though the split stage divides the action, from one scene to the next, the audience’s focus is on center stage. There’s an ordinary room with two beds, circa early 20th century. But with all its fringe trimmings and décor, the context of the drama’s tapestry shows that American society is still very much divided today by classes, race, gender, and religion. In this play, Nottage leads you to find similar ingredients for a powerful 21st-century dilemma.
As the play starts, you hear a party in the background. However, the sound of the music is muffled, somewhat distorted as if it were coming from somewhere else in the boarding house. Our heroine, Esther, a shy, unassuming woman, toils over her sewing machine, creating stylish corsets and camisoles for her customers—a misfit of socialites and prostitutes whose only preoccupation is what to wear in their boudoir to keep their menfolk happy, though they, themselves, lead unhappy lives.
Esther is so bent on her personal ambitious aspirations that she’s unaware of the parlor’s revelers, nor does she care to cakewalk among them to find, what other girls call, “a proper suiter.” She’s too serious and too proper—instead, she fills her mind with images of her own beauty salon. In the lining of her bed quilt, she has sewn her business plans, which show all the ways she proposes to pamper women, regardless of the color of their skin or their conventional status.
Nottage quickly establishes in this first scene that Esther has not only the discipline and talent but also the spine to make a successful career of her handiwork. She is also prideful, rejecting the advances of the “last-chance” men callers who come to the parties given by her landlady, Mrs. Dickinson.
“Pride’ll leave you lonely,” Mrs. Dickinson (Gabriel Lee) warns, but Esther doesn’t listen. She’s intent on placing all her energy on sewing her fancy undergarments for her dear clientele, which she at times values as equal parts professional and friendship.
In the next few scenes, we encounter Esther’s customers: two very different women, but with similar unhappy tales. Mrs. Van Buren (Gracie Winchester) is a high society white woman with everything a woman would want—a wealthy husband, a fancy house, and plenty of pink silk crepe de chine corsets to fill her boudoir. What’s more, she can’t get pregnant, so she worries that she will have nothing in life if her husband were to lose his interest in her. So, she finds in Esther the perfect machine of pretty things to keep her husband occupied. And then there’s Mayme (Krystal Mosley), a young prostitute with dreams of her own. Though poor and Black, Mayme sees herself performing at a piano concert, wearing a fancy dress, instead of the beaded corset she dons for the many men in her repertoire. Funny enough, one of them is the same corset as Mrs. Van Buren’s.
In Mrs. Dickinson, we find an interesting character. A woman running a brothel, with maternal instincts but with no sentimentality. She has taken Esther under her wing and tries to help the illiterate Esther correspond with George Armstrong (Jovon Jacobs), a Black man working on the Panama Canal, hoping to marry her one day.
Esther’s relationship with the women is also fascinating. It appears that she wants to keep it professional but needs their friendship and assistance, especially in her correspondence with George. Between Mayme and Mrs. Van Burens, they draft letters to George—from the erotic and passionate, to the plain and classic romantic.
Esther’s third professional friendship is even more intriguing. Mr. Marks (Jordan Sabel), an Orthodox Jew, sells fabric and saves the most striking swatches for her. He sees in Esther a beautiful and talented seamstress, and while there’s palpable chemistry between them, he is untouchable: a Jew soon to wed a woman he’s never even met.
I won’t reveal anything else about the plot except that at the end of Act I, Armstrong arrives in New York and marries Esther. A wedding announcement with no names says it all. America in the early 20th century does not paint a pretty picture. Esther looks beautiful but less than happy in her exquisite dress made with fabric she bought from Mr. Marks. And in Act II we learn why.
Like a delicate tapestry, Nottage has sewn this play so tightly that it is difficult to unravel. Like a good garment, it keeps its tension and conflict to the end, pushing us to pay close attention to all the details. In true form, the story’s plot pushes its characters to work through violent and sticky situations, and finally escape in order to find true and lasting happiness.
In “Intimate Apparel,” the playwright paints a struggle in the world of 1905—the need for emotional and physical independence. And, as the audience looks closely and recognizes this struggle, isn’t life today very much like that for many of us? Classes. Race. Gender. Religion. In today’s policy and crisis contexts, these social identifiers are at the core of contemporary scholarly debates.
On that note, “Intimate Apparel” is an act of recognition and escape from a world gone mad. When Esther tells Mrs. Van Buren, as they write the first letter to George, “My life ain’t really worthy of words,” what she means is that she isn’t special enough to be written about on paper. That’s just not true. Every woman is unique, and every man is, too.
“Intimate Apparel” is playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks until April 17, 2022. To buy your tickets, go to pbdramaworks.org or call the box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is located at 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, Florida.