- Intimate Apparel
- Written by Lynn Nottage
- Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson
- Produced by African Continuum Theatre Company
- Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Set in New York City in 1905, Intimate Apparel showcases the power of the written word from an African American cultural perspective. Specifically, the impact of letters and letter-writing in an age of innocence. Playwright Lynn Nottage gently and lovingly explores aspects of love and friendship, cultural identity, self- expression and survival.
Esther, the main character, beautifully rendered by Deidre LaWan Starnes, has all but given up on finding a soul mated kindred spirit, let alone a husband. She appears to have found both while exchanging letters with a Caribbean laborer who courts her with his gentility, poetic phrases, and tender expressions of love. Before she knows it, she’s swept off of her feet. Her orderly world, as precise and dependable as the stitches in her fashionable ladies’ undergarments, is turned upside down by love and longing.
Starnes is ferociously good in this production. If you missed her in the amazing I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda, this is the next best opportunity to see her shine. While we must suspend belief a little when she’s referred to as unattractive and plain, that’s a small dalliance that she brushes away with hunched shoulders and downcast, hesitant expressions. Watching her traverse the arc of her character, blossoming from daily grind worker to innocent love-struck bride, to misused, trusting wife thrust back to her single quiet life, is a remarkable journey. Jennifer L. Nelson’s direction gets to the heart of Esther’s interactions with each of the characters, creating treasured moments beautifully staged on the multileveled set. For a theatre company going through its share of hard times, you sure couldn’t tell it from the exquisite set and lighting design by Klyph Stanford or the costumes by Diana Khoury.
It’s quite a delight to witness a trio of D.C.’s finest actresses rustle through this scrumptious material. Mrs. Dickson, the venerable Jewel Robinson, runs the boarding house for single women and tends to all the tenants, getting all up in their personal business when she thinks best. Susan Lynskey portrays Mrs. Van Buren, the well coiffed though disregarded wife of a successful businessman with touching effectiveness. Esther bounces between them and a tender hearted though weary saloon singer prostitute Mayme, (Annette Dees Grevious) as she sorts through her options, life choices and dreams.
The stellar casting extends to the gentlemen who add the finishing touches. Daniel Eichner is the Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant whose subtle fondness for Esther extends beyond their appreciation of the exquisite fabric. Zuanna Sherman plays the Caribbean suitor/husband with just right mix of wonder and respect, his poetic letters contrasting with the reality of his coarse cruel ways. In a role that could easily become categorized as the villain, Sherman balances his waywardness with seething anger and frustration at the societal limitations of the first generation out of slavery. The first act ends in a sweet tableau of the wedding ceremony. This is what fairy tales are made of.
Nottage has an affinity for stirring up the cultural melting pot, blending races and cultures that traditionally would not mix, blend, or associate. In her Crumbs from the Table of Joy, a German immigrant woman marries into a black family creating dramatic tension with her two adolescent step daughters. Here, Nottage sets up a touching affection between Esther and the Jewish fabric merchant, played beautifully by Eichner. Their shared love and appreciation for the fabric is palpable– Esther’s fondling of the texture is downright orgasmic, reminding us of the intrinsic sensuality of touch. In a later poignant scene, Esther misconstrues the merchant’s recoiling from her outstretched hands as a racial rebuff, until he explains the highly restrictive rules of physical proximity and touch. With that understanding, their subsequent scene when she assists him putting on a parlor jacket takes on even more touching significance.
This precious Nottage script deserves the best. The issues of loneliness, love, and intimacy are universal; that she tackles them in the context of the African American experience in the early 1900’s offers an unusual point of view. The use of letters to pursue a courtship is not new. That both characters are illiterate and must rely on others from a higher social class to write and read them is a fascinating twist. George uses the “mulatto-man” in his village, Esther’s employer lives vicariously through the letters deriving warmth and intimacy absent in her own marriage. In a special Nottage twist, the prostitute Mayme can read and is called upon to help out in an emergency although because of her “sinful business” she couldn’t be invited to the wedding.
Nottage covers a lot in this well crafted story, maybe too much to address effectively. The two acts are decidedly different in tone and pacing with the first act clipping along neatly while the second, with all of the dramatic explosions and painful realizations spreads out a little long. Still, the story offers fascinating glimpses of the nation on the brink of establishing multi-cultural roots. It’s truly one of a kind.
- Running Time: 2:30 with 1 intermission
- When: Thru May 18th. Thursday – Saturday at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.
- Where: Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, N.E. Washington, DC
- Tickets: $30
Call: 202-399-7993 or consult the website.
Bill and Louisa Newlin says
We go to live theatre because there is nothing more thrilling than seeing the fruits of the collaboration between author, producer, director, actors and the production team (set, costume, light and sound) — and live audience. When it really works it is absolutely magical; even when only parts of it work it is exciting.
Since Feb 1 we have seen 17 theatrical performance, but that includes two in New York and it includes Tamerlano.
In what remains of May (we will be out of town a lot so the theatre list is thin) we have tickets for Ant. & Cleo, School for Scandal, History Boys, Internationalist, Electra and Clouds (by Aristophones, put on by Hart Middle School in Anacostia in a version they have spent months translating into their own vernacular)!
As is clear from the above we get great pleasure from Theatre in Washington and from where we sit attendance does not seem to be declining — but if you’re counting, you are probably right.
Thanks very much for DC Theatre Scene.
Regards, Bill and Louisa Newlin