(image taken from Goodreads.com)
Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage
Why I Decided To Read It: I have been wanting to read this play for a while. In one of my college classes, we had to pitch plays to read as a class and one of my classmates suggested this play. I thought we should have read it then to have some diversity in our class’s canon. Besides, I knew Lynn Nottage was a fairly popular name in modern theatre and this is probably her most well-known piece. And I like historical fashion. But it lost. This play got put on my Amazon Wish List with about seventy other plays I have yet to put the money down to order. However, I recently found it at my local Half Price Books and decided it was fate, so I bought it.
Summary: It’s 1905 and Esther Mills is just going through the daily motions. As an African-American seamstress, Esther spends her days sewing corsets and other lingerie for clients of all backgrounds in New York City while dreaming of owning her own beauty parlor. The only interactions she has are with her fellow boarding house dwellers, her clients, and the man that sells her fabric (with who she shares an undeniable attraction). When letters start arriving from a Panama Canal builder, Esther gets her first real shot of a romantic relationship, but things are not all that they seem. Will she find love? Or will she find herself? Or both?
Thoughts and Analysis: I enjoyed this play. (Surprise, I liked a feminist piece of media) It reminded me a bit of the plays In the Next Room and The Heiress and the novel Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset for different reasons. It shares discussion of women’s issues in the turn of the century with In the Next Room, struggles with spinsterhood and suitors with The Heiress, and being an African-American woman living in NYC with Plum Bun. These pieces of media themselves are not connected in any way with exception that they are written by (or in the case of The Heiress, co-written) women and all heavily feature the theme of loneliness. Intimate Apparel also heavily discusses loneliness.
The title of the play is very accurate. Not only is the main seamstress of women’s undergarments, but each character has a different way they handle intimacy. Everyone has his or own emotional apparel. Thanks to early 20th Century society being what it is, certain characters cannot be as close as what they want to be. If they act on that desire, there is a definite cost. It is a very honest view of the struggles in 20th Century America that we as an audience do not usually get to see- mainly because we see it in a white heterosexual male lens. It discusses interracial relationships, women’s sexuality, and immigration.
A facet I really enjoyed about this play is the use of language. Each character has her or his distinct voice thanks to his or her class, race, and place of origin. Esther, an African-American woman originally from the South, sounds different from Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant. There is even a difference between how George’s letters sound and how George actually speaks once he moves to New York (and for good reason).
I think my main complaint is that act two goes a little fast. Maybe it seems like that because act one contains a fair amount of exposition awhile act two is mainly moving plot. Overall, it isn’t too much of a problem.
Favorite Character: While all the characters are great, Esther is probably my favorite. She’s shy, but she’s stubborn. She wants independence but also wants romance. She’s extremely multidimensional and she’s great.
Should You Read This?: If you have an interest in turn-of-the-20th Century history, feminism, historical fashion, discussion of race in America, or romance, you should read this.
Final Thoughts: I think this should be added to the theatrical canon. It is a great example of modern theatre.
Also, if anyone has any suggestions for plays, especially comedic plays, I would love to hear them.