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‘Intimate Apparel’ weaves a delightful yarn thanks to young stars

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Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Amy Sorno, Intimate Apparel, is a fascinating, moving, and frequently hilarious play, which will continue its showing at the Neese Theater on Nov 17, 18, and 19. Set in 1904, Nottage’s script is filled with characters whose lives are dramatically limited by a variety of social and religious mores, economic instabilities, and racial and gender inequalities. Nottage and Sarno treat these various themes seriously, but a light and comic touch makes its presence felt strongly throughout the drama, which is easily one of the best I have seen in my time at Beloit.

Intimate Apparel’s protagonist is a black seamstress named Esther Mills, whose life since moving to New York City has been defined almost entirely by her labor at the sewing machine. Esther is played by Britney Johnson’20, the multi talented winner of this years Poetry Slam. Johnson’s performance contains Whitmanesque multitudes; she is at once proud and self-effacing, weary and effervescent, jaded and idealistic. Most importantly, she is captivating- the “unidentified negro seamstress ca. 1905” has, by the play’s conclusion, been rounded out, her inner and outer life displayed, and in the process saved, from the clutches of social and historical obscurity.  

The irony of the play’s title, and Esther’s job, is that Esther sews corsets, a.k.a. intimate apparel, but has never herself been “intimate” with someone. Unmarried at the age of 35, Esther sees her chance for love in the letters she receives from George Armstrong, an African-Caribbean man at work on the Panama Canal. George is played by Ellis Lewis’20, who vocalizes his letters to Esther in a halting voice reflective of the uncertainty inherent in both his position as a soon-to-be immigrant, and as the soon-to-be husband of a bride he has never met. Lewis’ role in the second act requires a dramatic change in character reminiscent of a telenovela or soap opera,  and he rises to the challenge admirably.

Esther, who is illiterate, relies on two of her customers, Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme, to read and respond to George’s letters. Mrs. Van Buren, a wealthy but discontented socialite, is played by Kyndall White’17, in a portrayal that’s both refined and compelling. The scenes that White and Johnson share do an excellent job of portraying the societal limits placed on their friendship. Nottage’s script calls out these walls directly, but both actors imbue their relationship’s limits with a subtlety that elevates their scenes away from a one note race and class analysis.

Mayme, played by Autumn Gant’19, is a sex worker, and though there is no racial divide between her and Esther, Esther perceives and constructs a moral one. There also exists a divide, as in all of Esther’s relationships, between buyer and seller- each friendship originates in an exchange of goods, but it is also limited by it. Gant’s portrayal is inspired and charismatic, and one can’t help but be riveted by her well rounded alternating optimism and melancholy.  

Perhaps the most jaded of all the characters, at least in regards to love, is the owner of Esther’s boarding house, Mrs. Dickson. Mrs. Dickson is played fabulously by Dr. Debra Majeed, Beloit’s Religious Studies professor. Mrs. Dickson and Esther’s friendship is one defined by time- seventeen years spent at the boarding house together- and Majeed and Johnson do an excellent job in realistically playing out the love and annoyance that naturally arises in such a lengthy relationship. Majeed’s pre-show loudspeaker speech on expected audience behavior is an added bonus that’s practically worth the price of admission.

The scene stealer of the play is Kerry Randazzo’20. Randazzo plays Mr. Marks, a Jewish owner of the fabric shop where Esther buys the materials for her corsets. Like Esther, Mr. Marks is engaged to someone across the world he has never met, and like Esther, he has a profound appreciation of fabric and craftsmanship. The awkward sexual chemistry between Johnson and Randazzo is astounding. Once can’t help but lean forward in their chair each time the two share the stage, as it becomes ever more apparent that the pair shares more than a love of fabric. A brief, wholesome act is effectively turned into one of the more sexually charged moments I’ve ever seen on stage, and the act is rendered all the more moving by the knowledge that the two cannot move past their professional friendship.

Both Johnson and Randazzo are freshmen, and their presence in the theater department will be more than welcome for the next three years. While there will be plenty of time to chart their progress in the years to come, there are only three more chances to attend the brilliantly directed and cast Intimate Apparel. It would be a disservice to yourself to miss it.

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