This October, Theater J presents Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, the piece that arguably established Nottage as a major contemporary American playwright when it premiered at Baltimore’s Center Stage in 2003. Set in New York in 1905, at a time of major change—whether it was the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern states to northern cities, or mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe—Gotham was being transformed by people seeking a better life. Nottage’s protagonist is Esther (Renee Elizabeth Wilson), an entrepreneurial Black seamstress living in a boarding house. Her talent at making corsets, petticoats, and other lingerie has earned her a clientele that includes both high society women and sex workers (costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka will design both the intimate apparel and period outerwear for this production). Esther plans to save enough to open her own beauty shop. Mr. Marks (Yoni Bronstein), a cloth merchant, is her preferred supplier. The two share an appreciation for fine fabric and a mutual attraction. He is also something exotic to her—an Orthodox Jew from Romania. Meanwhile, Esther also carries on a correspondence with George (Manu Kumasi), a Caribbean laborer on the Panama Canal. While Nottage based Esther on her great-grandmother, director Paige Hernandez also saw her own family connection reflected in the story. “My paternal aunt, Claudia, was a seamstress,” Hernandez says, explaining that, while her father had gone to college to learn business, the assumption in her family was that “everyone goes into a trade,” and practices a craft to attain entrepreneurship. Claudia, who did not go to college, made something for family graduations and even made Hernandez’ wedding dress. When Hernandez first saw a production of Intimate Apparel, she “fell in love; to direct it is a dream.” With this production, her intent is to “represent the same visceral feeling when I read it. There’s a buoyant movement like the waving of fabric; the words bounce off the page like a dance.” In that regard she intends to lean in to her background as a dancer and choreographer to create movement on stage, and will be working with scenic designer Paige Hathaway “to have fabric flowing on the stage.” She described the collaboration as Paige Squared, adding: “We’re a thing!” Intimate Apparel runs from Oct. 19 through Nov. 13 at Theater J. theaterj.org. $39–$84.
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