Intimate Apparel
Renee Elizabeth Wilson as Esther in Theater J’s production of Intimate Apparel, playing through Nov. 13; Credit: Ryan Maxwell Photography

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Intimate Apparel opens with Esther Mills (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) sitting at her sewing machine. The year is 1905. Esther is not a garment district sweatshop worker, but rather a skilled seamstress working independently from her room in Mrs. Dickson’s (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman) rooming house in Manhattan. New York is a city in transition: It is a destination of the Great Migration, a mass movement of Black southerners, who, like Esther, left the south, seeking a better life; it is also the destination for immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. It’s a strange new world for all.  

Lynn Nottage based Intimate Apparel on the life of her great-grandmother, and since its 2003 premiere it has entered the contemporary American canon. Nottage has since collaborated with composer Ricky Ian Gordon on an operatic adaptation of the play that premiered in 2020, just before the COVID pandemic.

Esther’s independence comes from her skill, her ability to source the best materials, and, above all, her discretion, as she makes custom lingerie and corsets for a diverse clientele that includes sex-workers like Mayme (Awa Sal Secka), and the society women of Fifth Avenue like Mrs. Van Buren (Susan Lynskey). She is 35 years old, born to parents who were once enslaved, and, as Mrs. Dickson reminds her, unlike the other young women who have passed through the rooming house in the 18 years since Esther arrived, still unmarried. But none of the suggested suitors appeal to her.

Her work brings her into regular contact with Mr. Marks (Yoni Bronstein), a cloth merchant. They share a sensual love for the fine silks and laces they trade in, and an admiration for the labor that goes into making them, but also a longing. In a key moment when Marks withdraws his hand from hers, she learns it is not due to the color of her skin, but because, as a Chassidic Jew, he is forbidden to even chastely touch a woman outside his family. He piously awaits a bride from Romania whom he has never met; the wedding was arranged years ago. The chemistry between Wilson and Bronstein in these scenes is quite lovely to watch: With every gesture, glance, and intonation they indirectly communicate that their characters are in love.

Just as her thoughts turn to love, a letter arrives from one George Armstrong (Manu Kumasi), a laborer from Barbados now working on the Panama Canal. Mrs. Dickson suspects that George is just a long-distance Lothario. But Esther is illiterate and finds herself going to her clients, first Van Buren and later Mayme, to read his letters to her and compose the replies, both seeing themselves as matchmakers.

As a director, Paige Hernandez’s background as a dance choreographer is evident, often punctuating scenes with the sorts of sculptural gestures one expects from dancers. She might use a recurring motif as simple as a crouch or a more elaborate, asymmetrical pose with one leg extended to the side with the other bent, torso tilted, with open hands. We realize that this signifies joy before it is incorporated into a song and dance shared by Esther and Mayme.

Wilson as Esther and Awa Sal Secka as Mayme; Credit: Ryan Maxwell Photography

Set designer Paige Hathaway fills the boudoirs of the story with elegant wood furniture and a big brass bed that is rotated in different directions to signify the different women’s rooms, but what stands out is her use of fabric as part of the set: Several vertically hanging scrims are, at times, bunched together to make a canopy for the bed and other times hang loosely to make the image of George hazy and dreamlike as his letters from Panama are read to Esther. A horizontal strip of the same fabric is incorporated into the projections crafted by Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor, which, along with flora of the Panamanian jungle, regularly include the titles that Nottage has given her scenes, such as “Imperial Silk: Embroidered with Blue Threads,” or “Heliotrope Handkerchief.” These names are not incorporated in most stagings of Intimate Apparel (and did not appear in the production I saw 11 years ago). The use of the chapter-like titles, however, underline the theme of sensual objects as the products of the labor of individuals and international commerce.

In a play in which clothing and fabric play such a major role, so much rests on the talents of costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka. From Mr. Marks’ traditional black coat and tzitzit, to Esther and Mrs. Dickson’ modest everyday dresses, to Esther’s many creations—including a corset with beaded tassels supposedly popular in France at the time, a bridal bodice with embroidered flowers, and a silk smoking jacket—the clothing perfectly captures the time and feel.

Likewise, scenes in which Esther must dress her clients—indeed it is fascinating to see scenes where the dresser, and not the one being dressed, is the protagonist—benefits from the work of intimacy coordinator Cliff Williams III.

Hernandez and Theater J nimbly tell Esther’s story against the backdrop of international commerce, labor, and multicultural New York with the same skill that Esther sets a silk flower on a corset that few are intended to see.

Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, directed by Paige Hernandez, runs through Nov. 13 at Theater J.  theaterj.org. $54.99–$84.99.