INTIMATE APPAREL by Lynn Nottage, directed by Philip Akin, with Raven Dauda, Lisa Berry, Marium Carvell, Kevin Hanchard, Alex Poch-Goldin and Carly Street. Presented by Obsidian at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews today (Thursday, January 17), opens Friday (January 18) and runs to February 3, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $20-$30, stu/srs $15, preview $12. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
In Intimate Apparel, playwright Lynn Nottage stitches together the story of Esther, a black seamstress living in 1905 New York City.
Creating elegant undergarments for upper-class whites and black prostitutes, she moves between worlds by keeping to herself, secure in her skills and content with her lot.
Things change when she starts a correspondence with George, a construction worker on the Panama Canal whose letters awaken Esther to the possibility of a new emotional and sexual life.
“The first week of rehearsal, I discovered that Esther is a hero,” smiles actor Raven Dauda. “She’s a strong woman who knows her place in life, is grounded in her faith and has a sense of pride in her work.
“There’s nothing flashy about Esther, a fact that she probably struggled with at some point, but now she contents herself with making others beautiful by creating exquisite items of clothing that lie so close to their skin, it’s as if she’s in touch with their souls.
“That’s where she finds her own beauty,” confides Dauda, who has appeared in Twilight Café and ’da kink in my hair. But at 35, living with a landlady who’s pushing a suitor on Esther,
the seamstress discovers an additional possibility of happiness when George writes to her. Shy, she turns to two clients, the wealthy socialite Mrs. Van Buren and the prostitute Mayme, for help in responding to him.
Despite their social differences, the two clients have some striking similarities. Both have trouble with the men in their lives, and both look to Esther for companionship. Esther even sews identical corsets for them.
“Love is the throughline in this play,” notes Lisa Berry, who plays Mayme. “Everyone in Intimate Apparel wants to love and be loved. The script explores the lengths people will go to get that love, which is sometimes not right, sometimes unspoken, sometimes heart-wrenching.”
Esther finds an unexpected source of affection in Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jew who provides the bolts of cloth for her work.
“This is a show where love of different sorts is presented subtly, without trumpets, parades or fancy poetic gestures,” says Berry, who spent last summer at Stratford. “At first you wouldn’t think Esther and Mayme would have anything in common, but we see them as giggling schoolgirls, two people who support each other in their lives and dreams.”
“What’s great is that we sister each other,” continues Dauda. The two actors clearly have as close a relationship offstage as they do on.
“Esther is older, but Mayme often seems the elder sister because she’s more worldly. One of the best things about their relationship is that there’s no judgment no matter how dissimilar they are. Yes, sometimes even sisters have a falling out, but it never comes from a malicious place.”
The two performers researched their roles and the period in different ways. Dauda watched PBS videos about period New York: what it was like to live in a tenement, the lot of immigrants, even such details as how one washed.
Berry focused on women of the time, especially women of colour, and the lifestyle of prostitutes.
“There were changing attitudes about if and how women were allowed into bars, and also about the solicitation process,” she offers. “Mayme doesn’t have good experiences with men; she gets roughed up and sometimes stiffed by her johns.
“She may be sexually aggressive, free and in her body, but underneath she’s also self-conscious, a little girl looking for love and acceptance. I think Mayme would really prefer to be someone like Esther.”
The two actors praise the play’s well-drawn characters and the fact that when someone goes offstage you wonder what’s happening to her or him.
“There’s a recognizable humanity in each of them, regardless of colour and money,” concludes Berry. “The playwright has created people whose brief time onstage makes you feel that they really lived, and that you want to know more about them.”