We are talking about a woman whose life rests in the hands of another woman but risks her life for the hand of a man. Thirty-five year-old African-American woman, Esther simply wants to find love, to be married, and to take some time off from work. She is blessed with skills on the sewing machine and builds high fashion design, lady’s undergarments mostly, and she just happens to be working in lower Manhattan. It is 1905. She is well spoken but illiterate and finds herself corresponding with a man in Panama, digging the great canal. Her closest friends and customers pen the letters and she is married to him by intermission.
The new play by Lynn Nottage and director, Michael Mendelson, Intimate Apparel is my first strict theater assignment. I have reviewed all kinds of performance in the context of festival blogging, but now I am standing inside Artists Reportory Theater for the first time. I happen to live quite literally a stone’s throw away. I see the big red exterior on a daily basis. I am impressed by the interior, its facilities and functionality; its levels and multipurpose rooms provide great range. Past work photographs help me appreciate its history. I realize I’m in an audience unfamiliar to me and I take note of a certain theater personality embedded in to the scenery.
Ayanna Berkshire performs the role of Esther, the leading role. She was an early guest on the Horizon @End Times podcast as well, where she speaks to the ego, the sense of self that actors are always playing with and risking for their profession. Can every woman relate to Esther? Ayanna puts herself in to the role as though she does. Even if it highlights the gap between the lives of black women one-hundred years ago and how far things have evolved since, the story manages to illuminate common struggles, perhaps common to eras, and in this case, I would suggest common to all of industrial society.
George is the man behind the letters gaining the attention of Esther. It is unclear how he discovers her in the first place. His letters stream in from Panama. The writing highlights a man with a strong work ethic, survival insincts, restraint and spirituality, and pretty soon he is proposing marriage. He turns out to be quite different. He is a man damaged from the injustice of his time. His love is drained by the evils of industrial, segregated society, his judgement is blunted, and he hasn’t got a nickel. Esther is far from it, her moral compass is in order, her common sense in tact, and she has stitched together a nest egg. However, it is not only his authenticity that is challenged as she reveals his true self and falls prey to his demands.
The vastness of the Artists Rep. building narrows down like the nucleus of an atom in to the heart of the structure. It is a black box style theater with a pretty small stage. Because the scenic design allows Esther to walk from week to week in mere steps, it is easy to neglect the length of time passing in the story. Lighting cues, design strategies, stage levels, and the use of walkways make it possible to thread a story between six sets without any noticeable changes at a given moment. Ayanna appears in every scene and manages to nail it. It seems exhausting, especially in the bulky late-Victorian costumes, but I don’t see a bead of sweat. The story takes place over at least one year, perhaps two. There is a sense that nothing changes, yet everything is changing.
Esther’s confidants and other love interests are an orthodox Jewish fabric wholesaler, Mr. Marks, a wealthy white customer, Mrs. Van Buren, her landlord and quasi-mother Mrs. Dickson, and Mayme, a musician and prostitute. Each person threads the narrative with roughly equal distribution, each playing crucial roles in the unraveling of Esther’s destiny, especially as she depends on others to write and read the letters. This mix of personalities become the driving force behind Esther’s romance with George, and perhaps, the very image she holds of herself.
Things take a turn for the worse after marrying George. Despite the fact that her friends drive her in to the situation that nobody can predict, they in turn protect her, each in their own way. There is no man to save a woman in this story. The ending is tragic but in a “could have been worse” sort of way. Like any good tragedy and love story, it realigns you to what is most important in life and in love, if you don’t mind a little realignment anyway.
The notion of courting by letter writing, bypassing dating, bypassing meeting the parents, bypassing sex and moving in together—all things that any contemporary person living in lower Manhattan would consider the normal, prudent route to marriage—is believable as presented in this story. I reflect on the tremendous pace of change that humans have adapted to with each successive generation since industrialism. Perhaps much like Esther, we are all driving each other in to a situation that can not go very well.
Intimate Apparel runs through September until October 5th at the Artists Repertory Theater. More information at www.artistsrep.com.