The Grand Theatre’s production of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage is in honour of Black History Month. The piece follows the life of Esther (Sophia Walker), a 35 year old African American seamstress working in New York. Her life is forever changed when she receives a letter from a Bajan man, George (Andre Sills), who asks to maintain a correspondence with Esther to give him something to look forward to as he works on the Panama Canal. The piece opens with the visual of Esther working at her sewing machine, and closes with the same scene. The simplicity of this visual neatly bookends a dramatic tale full of aspiration, love, and deception.
The title of the piece carries a certain mystere that carries through into the narrative, as if the nature of Esther’s work is not something to discuss in polite company. There is a subtle tragedy to the lives of each character, tragedies which are swept under the rug until they can no longer be ignored. The first half of the play conceals this well, as it is full of playful dialogue between Esther and her clients: the high-society lady Mrs. van Buren (Ruby Joy) and the prostitute, Mayme (Marsha Regis). There are plenty of uplifting moments between George narrating his letters to Esther, and her interactions with the textile dealer, Mr. Marks (Jonathan Gould). As the play continues however, the lives of these characters begin to unravel.
Esther’s interactions with her clients are what carry the narrative. The relationship between Esther and Mrs. van Buren blurs class and racial boundaries: in the boudoir, they are just two women sharing in each other’s difficulties. The two are genuine friends and Mrs. van Buren is key in developing the relationship between George and Esther. As the piece goes on and the lives of the women are further complicated, this friendship becomes strained. Walker and Joy do an excellent job of carrying the audience through the highs and lows of this friendship.
The friendship between Esther and Mayme provides quite a bit of the comedy of this piece. The liberal attitude (and mouth) of Mayme perfectly contrasts the more shrewd Esther, but when given a bottle of booze and a raunchy piano tune, the strength of this friendship is clearly seen. It is because these women are so close, and face such a similar situation as women of colour in society, that the challenge to their friendship in the second half of the play is so tragic. The two women each have a dream, but the latter part of the second half of the play depicts their aspirations slipping away.
The Esther of the second half of the play lives a life of broken dreams and deceit. I found that, despite the fact that there was an incredible amount of tragedy in Esther’s life, she remained fairly stoic through it all. It was the unravelling of the supplementary characters that drew out the sadness of Esther’s situation. It is difficult to discuss the character of George and thus, the core relationship of the play, without giving too many of the major plot points away. I will just say that George is ambiguous from the start, but the narrative of the first half of the piece has you rooting for Esther and George to succeed.
One of the most engaging relationships in this piece is that of Esther and the textile dealer, Mr. Marks. The two share a precious friendship and I almost find myself wishing for more interactions between these two characters. The same can be said for the mother hen of the piece, Mrs. Dickinson. She acts as the voice of reason in this piece and is quick to offer advice to Esther. By the end of the play, you’ll wish Esther had listened.
Much like the visual of Esther at her sewing machine in the boarding house, the appearance of the cautionary Mrs. Dickinson at the opening and close of the piece brings the narrative full circle. Though the visual remains the same, everything has changed for Esther and you’re left wondering if any of it will be for the better.
The design of the production was incredible. The all-wood, tiered set added numerous possibilities for staging and the use of space was excellent. The division of the stage allowed for the separate living and working spaces of Mayme, Esther, and Mrs. Dickinson’s boarding house in the foreground. In the back, Mr. Mark’s shop was raised in order to be seen above the shared bed of the three settings below. And yet, despite this division of space, Gould was frequently left back in the shop between scenes, which was an interesting—but not at all distracting—choice on the part of the director. Though the set was very complicated, it was not “busy.” It never overwhelmed the actors, or appeared cluttered, which is an incredible feat. Lighting was used excellently to illuminate the required space for a scene, and sound cues combined with a spotlight allowed George to enter the space, while still situated in Panama. The costumes, as could be expected, were excellent, though it would have been a bit more visually interesting if Esther’s workshop had some fabric lying around, or more pieces in progress.
The Grand Theatre partnered with the London Black History Coordinating Committee (LBHCC) for this production. The goal of the LBHCC is to increase awareness of Black history Month celebrations in the community. In honour of this partnership and Intimate Apparel, a fundraising reception was held at the Grand Theatre on February 21st with dresses inspired by Intimate Apparel and designs by the Laurent House of Fashion were displayed. I had the chance to see these dresses in person and they are a creative hybridization of early 20th century dresses and contemporary fashion.
Intimate Apparel runs from February 17th to March 7th on the main stage. Tickets are available at the box office.