Review: A Woman’s Worth Revealed in Intimate Apparel at Northlight Theatre

Women in America have long demanded that society appreciate their worth and contributions beyond the confines of a household. Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, directed by Tasia Jones, mines the history of the first wave of Black migration to New York and reveals a new definition of intimacy and sacrifice. Intimate Apparel is the story of Esther, a Black woman from North Carolina who has lived in a boarding house for 17 years and has made her way as a seamstress making alluring undergarments. Esther is played by the stunning Mildred Marie Langford with raw emotion simmering beneath the surface. Langford gives us innocence in the world of relationships and shines in her character’s firm belief in her talent and vision as a seamstress. She is the reliable shoulder to cry on for her women clients. Esther’s room is owned by the motherly yet pragmatic Mrs. Dickson, played by Felicia P. Fields with a firm command of the stage and just the right touch of tenderness. Mrs. Dickson gives the audience joviality and the hard-earned dignity of a woman who has had to endure before succeeding. Mrs. Dickson is a comical and infuriating character. Her attempts at matchmaking or keeping them from a romanticized notion of how marriage was always a means to an end hit hard.

Lower Manhattan in 1905 was teeming with immigrants and migrants. A flood of people came through Ellis Island and mostly settled into self-made ghettoes in the traditional definition of the word—that is a minority excluded in one area and surrounded by a wealthy and White ruling class. No matter where they came from, European immigrants were given priority and welcomed into the construct of being White in America.

The Black migrants from the South were kept in servitude—jobs with a poor chance of achieving integration into the larger society. Esther has a plan for her life and is uninterested in the portly bellman that Mrs. Dickson keeps talking up at Sunday socials in the parlor. Nottage is writing in an era similar to her Pulitzer-winning play Ruined, but this is a look into the economic and social struggles of the poor and working-class strivers who came from the South looking for a better life. Intimate Apparel navigates through Esther’s journey to be taken seriously in business and in life. Her very small social circle consists of Mrs. Dickson, party girl and saloon singer Maymie played with a kittenish delight by Rashada Dawan. Maymie embodies the glamor and sexiness that Esther’s client Mrs. Van Buren—played by Rebecca Spence—wants. Spence gives a nuanced performance as the lonely, wealthy, and neglected White wife who finds comfort in engaging with Esther. For Mrs. Van Buren, it is engagement and for Esther, it is walking a thin line of getting too familiar with White folks. Esther mentions a relative who died and was probably lynched and is wary of Mrs. Van Buren’s neediness.

Mildred Marie Langford and Rebecca Spence: Photo by Liz Lauren

The intimacy that is forged just by fitting her clients with corsets and sumptuous silks leads to some unintended consequences and some that she longs for but knows can never happen. Esther is soon courted by a Bahamian man working on the Panama Canal for promises of good money and an entry into the labor market back home. George Armstrong is a beautiful and charming man who is told about Esther by the deacon of her church. (Yao Dogbe plays George until May 1 with Al’Jaleel McGhee taking the role after that.) Dogbe reminds me of the legendary Geoffrey Holder with the courtly bow and a melodious voice. His words are a balm for Esther’s loneliness and a spot of optimism for a husband and a family life. Mrs, Van Buren is more than eager to help her correspond in the hopes of building a friendship. She writes letters for Esther that build a coquettish image and Maymie is more than happy to insert some sensuality and vivid flirting into the letters.

The one relationship that offers intimacy on a soul level is between Esther and the Jewish fabric vendor Mr. Marks played by Sean Fortunato. They are connected through a true love of fine fabric and an eye for real beauty. Fortunato is heartbreaking as a man also promised to a woman from Romania in an arranged marriage. Anguish and loneliness are etched on Fortunato’s face whenever he encounters Esther. There is clearly a connection but it is forbidden on religious, cultural, and racial bases. Their scenes are filled with hesitancy and tension that made me wish that they would kiss and fall into each other’s arms. One of the most sensual scenes I have witnessed is when Esther gets him to remove his father’s black jacket and clothes him in a beautiful Japanese silk smoking jacket with his tzitzit and yarmulke still in place. This is an intimate relationship, even more than Esther and her husband. Mr. Marks has explained that his faith forbids him touching a woman who is not his wife but he revels in an accidental touch over a bolt of satin fabric. It is as if they give each other breath that remains caught in the throat. The subtlety of movement in their scenes is a masterful touch of fine acting and staging.

Sean Fortunato and Mildred Marie Langford: Photo by Liz Lauren

Director Tasia Jones has created a fluid and well-paced production. There is a tautness to the characters that magnifies the concept of intimacy. When George leads Esther’s hand on their wedding night, she recoils as if he were an invader in her carefully curated world. Everyone in Esther’s world crosses that line except Mr. Marks. The set design by Scott Pender is lovely and ornate fitting the era. The sheer backdrop where George is seen in silhouette is a very clever play on the intimate attire that Esther creates. They are both different people than they represent, so when he arrives in New York, it feels as if the curtain has been breached. Another beautiful addition is an overhead projection of sepia photos from the era that fills the backdrop. The captions are written in pencil as “unidentified Negro couple” and “unidentified Negro seamstress,” stripping away the intimate moments of their lives and reducing them to less than the commodities they were as enslaved people.

The sepia portraits in the play and in the gallery of the theater are the perfect accoutrement to the play. I remember poring over my grandmother’s albums and wondering who those beautiful people were. Some of those pictures were the only portraits ever taken of my ancestors and I would have to depend on snippets of hushed conversations to know their story. Nottage gives a voice to the women who went uncelebrated but made an indelible mark on the lives of their descendants. Intimate Apparel portrays the knowledge and worth of a woman through experiences and traumas that are in the collective consciousness. It is a beautiful telling of one woman’s story that has in many ways become every Black woman’s experience.

Intimate Apparel by the Northlight Theatre group runs for 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission through May 15 at the North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. For more information and tickets, you can call 847-6773-6300 or visit their website. Covid protocols are still mandated so bring your vaccine card or proof of a negative PCR Covid test within 72 hours. Wear a mask over your nose and mouth at all times in the theater. Keep yourself, the actors, and the audience healthy! For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

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