This is a multilayered play by one of our foremost playwrights, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Lynn Nottage. She juggles so many themes in Intimate Apparel, it dazzles. In the hands of Palm Beach Dramaworks, this achingly lyrical play, set in lower Manhattan in 1905, is an abundance of disquieting truths, and underlying hopes. The language of the play is ineffably beautiful.
The playwright has created memorable and tragically flawed characters, falling victim to societal norms and personal adversity. Intimate Apparel’s themes of isolation and yearning to be loved are universal. Although set in the early 20th century, the play’s underlying racism, sexism, and division by religion or culture resonate today. No wonder it was recently adapted as an opera, the playwright becoming the librettist; all sold out performances at Lincoln Center and soon to be shown on PBS’ Great Performances.
“I wrote Intimate Apparel in part because of my desire to get closer to my ancestors,” Nottage told PBD Producing Artistic Director William Hayes in a 2020 interview (available on YouTube). “I wanted to understand what it might have been like for a single, Black woman at the turn of the century to try and forge a life in New York City despite all the obstacles she probably had to face. I also wanted to write a play for my mother, something that she would have loved to have seen, something that was in her gentle, loving spirit.”
Rita Cole is a heartbreaking Esther, a 35-year-old African American seamstress whose imaginative creations are sought out by her friends and wealthy matrons from high society. She lives in a boarding house and has watched twenty-two women come and go during her eighteen years there. Esther has been left behind in the contests of love and marriage. She longs for their experience. Cole reveals her character’s sadness and seriousness of purpose, preserving her sense of rectitude while saving all the money she’s earned over the years inside a quilt she made.
|Rita Cole and Jordan Sobel|
Stealthily central to the play is the ethereal but forbidden love of two artisans, Esther and Mr. Marks. Her appreciation of fine fabrics and artistic creations are much-admired by her Hasidic merchant Mr. Marks tenderly played by Jordan Sobel. Together, they marvel at the fabrics, with a subliminal yearning for one another, but their ethnicity and societal norms prevent even a passing touch. Sobel sustains a sense of awkwardness because of the ethnic divide when Esther is near. He too is enveloped by loneliness and need for love but is soon to be part of an arranged marriage.
Esther’s landlady Mrs. Dickson, and Mrs. Van Buren, her society patron, urge her to settle as they have. They have been in loveless marriages.
|Gabrielle Lee and Rita Cole|
Gabrielle Lee, as the boardinghouse landlady, sashays across the stage capturing her character’s pragmatic and confident attitude as well as her love for Esther who she treats like a daughter. Mrs. Dickson’s unfortunate marriage, however, allowed her to escape being a washwoman like her mother who would caution: “Marry up,” showing her bleeding scarred hands “Look what love done to me.” In a moment of foreshadowing Mrs. Dickson movingly warns Esther, Don’t you let no man have no part of your heart without getting a piece of his.
|Rita Cole and Krystal Mosley|
Her friend, for whom she also sews, Mayme, is robustly performed by Krystal Mosley. She is a prostitute, and a singer and piano player at one of the saloons in “The Tenderloin” section of Manhattan (a red light district of night clubs and brothels). She has a jaundiced view of men and ultimately becomes pivotal to the plot. Mosley projects her character’s easy going, breezy aplomb. When Esther is fitting Mayme for a corset she perfectly captures the irrationality of class issues telling Mayme about Mrs. Van Buren and the expensive corsets she has made for her: You know that white lady I talk about sometime…. She keep asking me what they be wearing up in the Tenderloin. All that money and high breeding and she wore what you wearing.…What she got, you want, what you got, she want.
In spite of Esther and Mayme being from opposite sides of a moral fence, they are the best of friends. Esther heartachingly shares the dream for her lifelong savings with Mayme: I own a quaint beauty parlor for colored ladies…. The smart set. Someplace east of Amsterdam, fancy, where you get pampered and treated real nice. ‘Cause no one does it for us. We just as soon wash our heads in a bucket and be treated like mules. But I’m talking about is someplace elegant.
Enter the catalyst, George Armstrong played by Jovon Jacobs (the only PBD veteran in the play) who at first has an epistolary relationship with Esther as he is working on the Panama Canal. In a series of letters back and forth of escalating intimacy, Esther sees a means of marrying a man she’s never met.
|Jovon Jacobs and Rita Cole|
The role of George is a multifaceted one and Jacobs embraces it with seething sexuality and raw emotion, playing both the villain and the victim. He also fills the stage with his physicality. Jacobs’ passion as George dominates his many monologues such as when he says of the “Panama project,” that has killed thousands of black laborers like himself: But when the great oceans meet and the gentlemen celebrate, will we colored men be given glasses to raise?
The play gradually shifts to betrayal of dreams as George is not as he represented himself in “his” letters and Esther, who is illiterate, has had to have her letters ghost written for her, mostly by Mrs. Van Buren who vicariously plunges into love on her behalf, the kind of love she herself has been denied.
|Gracie Winchester and Rita Cole|
Mrs. Van Buren, played by Gracie Winchester, whose station in life is ensured by her wealth and her white ethnicity, is ironically one of the loneliest characters in the play and she forms an attachment to Esther who is completely unaware of her feelings. Gracie Winchester lustfully portrays her character’s true feelings saying to Esther while drunk: It is so easy to be with you. Your visits are about the only thing I look forward to these days. You and our letters to George, of course.
Those letters are an integral part of the play’s climatic moment, Rita Cole and Jovon Jacobs ascending to an unforgettable dramatic peak.
Self-deception, betrayal, and the vulnerability of women, shatter Esther’s dream of opening a beauty parlor for “colored ladies.” George’s dreams of becoming a builder die away as he is a Barbadian immigrant without connections; those dreams fading into get rich quick schemes. Mayme’s dreams of being a concert pianist long ago yielded to prostitution. Yet despite all these headwinds, Esther’s intrinsic steadfastness and skill ultimately serve as her Phoenix. The American Dream is so often seen as the exclusive province of WASPs in literature and theater; Nottage movingly shows us another dimension.
There are multiple scenes and settings, a challenge for Michael Amico, the Scenic Designer. As scenes flow right into one another, his utilitarian solution is elegant, capturing the Belle Époque look and feel of the era, in a proscenium framed like a photograph. From stage right to left, there are Mayme’s boudoir and piano, Esther’s boarding house bed, above that a small platform in which we see George in Panama, then Esther’s circa 1900 sewing machine, operational and symbolic, further, Mrs. Van Buren’s dressing room and finally Mr. Marks’ treasure chest of fine fabrics.
The Director, Be Boyd (her PBD debut), uses the full breadth of the stage to create dramatic movement, irrespective of the scene pocket “owned” by the character, the audience having to use its imagination. It works. Boyd’s experience as a teacher shows (in addition to being a director, she’s an Associate Professor, School of Performing Arts, at The University of Central Florida), asking her actors to fully embrace the theme of dreams denied. The pacing of the first act may be a little slow, but necessary for each word to clearly land. Those who patiently allow the action to simply unfold are well rewarded.
Lighting design by Kirk Bookman works with these pockets of scenes, lighting each area and flowing into the next with the action. There are subtle changes in lighting color and watch the lighting behind the curtains.
Roger Arnold’s sound design focuses on some original ragtime pieces that Dramaworks commissioned Josh Lubin to compose for the production, ones joyfully played by Mayme on her piano. Transitional moments feature other music of the period as well as the sounds George might have heard in Panama while working on the canal.
Resident Costume Designer, Brian O'Keefe, has more than met the challenge of designing multiple period pieces, for George and the women of different socio-economic classes, many of them specifically called for by the playwright. The authenticity of his hand sewn costumes adds immeasurably to the production. There are the exquisite silk corsets and undergarments, multiple dresses, a man’s suit, and the beautiful smoking jacket which had to be hand created twice because it was impossible to unnoticeably transport it between two critical scenes.
A special call goes out to the props staff of PBD, particularly for the vintage sewing machine which carries the play’s arc, to the wig designer, Anne Nesmith, and to the Stage Manager Suzanne Clement Jones who successfully navigates the Director’s staging of this intricate play.
Lynn Nottage and Palm Beach Dramaworks have given us a window into a world of the past, one of uncomfortable truths about class, gender and race. It is a courageous production, both in content and performance. The play, which Variety called “note-perfect,” runs through April 17.
All photographs of actors in the play are by Jason Nuttle