By Jordyn Fitch ’20
Intimate Apparel—a play by Lynn Nottage and directed by Tazewell Thompson in a Dartmouth Theater Department production running through Sunday, November 13–tells the story of Esther Mills, a 35-year-old seamstress living in turn-of-the-last-century Manhattan. Esther, portrayed by Zahra Ruffin ’17, lives in a rooming house with seven unattached women under the care of land lady Mrs. Dickson (Jovanay Carter ’19). In her time there, she has worked to perfect her craft of, as she tells her wealthiest client, Fifth Avenue socialite Mrs. Van Buren (Kelly Gaudet ’17), “sewing intimate apparel for women.” And it is her skill and deftness with the sewing machine that has allowed her accumulate a variety of customers ranging from Mrs. Van Buren to Mayme (Nasche Mutenda ’20), a vivacious prostitute with dreams of playing piano professionally. Over the past 18 years, Esther has saved up a substantial amount of money that she keeps hidden in a “crazy quilt” that she intends to use to start a beauty parlor for colored women.
However, her dreams get interrupted when she finds herself in a fast-advancing epistolary courtship with a colored laborer working on the Panama Canal, George Armstrong (Gabriel Jenkinson ’20). Falling in love with his “sugared words” after six short months of correspondence, Esther agrees to marry him. However, shortly after the nuptials she comes to realize that the man in the letters and the man now in her bed couldn’t be more different. Torn by her steadfast devotion to be a good, loving wife, her desire to be loved in return, and her obvious affections for the Jewish fabric salesman, Mr. Marks (Kyle Civale ’20), from whom she buys all her fabric, Esther struggles to lead a fulfilling life and eventually ends up losing it all.
A major underlying theme throughout the play revolves around untold narratives, highlighted by the brilliancy of the technical aspects of the production. At the end of the first act, a projection flashes on crisp, white sheets flown in from above stage that come to rest above the scene of Esther’s wedding. The projection reads: “Unidentified Negro Couple Circa 1905,” signifying the irrelevance of this union to the state and by extension society at this time. Esther and George represent a multitude of colored Americans during this time period whose stories were often unknown or forgotten. The story of Esther and George–one filled with love, loss and a desperate search for identity–is stripped from them, and its great complexity instead rendered cookie cutter, meaningless and lost in time.
The play, however, does not only remind us of stories that go untold, but also stories that are often overlooked, skewed or misjudged like a book by its cover. We the viewers see this quite vividly in Mayme. Despite her occupation, Mayme is vibrant, intelligent and talented, and can, as Esther tells her “play the piano better than anyone [she] know[s].” One would not think to look for such talent in the red light district. Yet, there she stands, as vibrant and resilient as ever with a soft spot for love. Moreover, while we remember the narrative of the rich, white socialite that Ms. Van Buren represents, we never truly know the intricacies of their personal lives. For instance, while on the outside, Van Buren puts up a front of happiness and social content, it’s all a façade, like the one she puts on when she must attend the “Annual Gardenia Ball.” She’s trapped in a loveless marriage to rude husband who “spat at her” for her inability to conceive. Furthermore, the audience can even assume that due to the time period, she is forced to live a lie as a result of her sexuality.
At the culmination of the play, we see Esther’s life fall apart before our eyes as cast and crew begin to swirl furniture representative of all the aspects of Esther’s life around her wildly while discordant music plays. Quickly, all the furniture that had been housed on stage through the play disappears into the wings along with the rest of the cast. For the first time, the stage is near empty, mimicking Esther’s life at this point. She then sits alone at her sewing machine. Pregnant, destitute and alone, she is forced to start all over–and yet, from the look on her face and the determination the audience can feel emanate from her, we know she will persevere. However, once again the white sheets fly in and the projection flashes. This time, though, reading “Unidentified Negro Seamstress Circa 1905,” reminding the audience once again that her narrative is one that in her time would not be emphasized or remembered.
Through Thompson’s deft direction, bolstered by strong technical components, the production succeeds in reminding audiences that every life is full of strife and struggle, and works hard to show us the true complexity of life, particularly for women. That whether they’re rich and seemingly have it all, or are forced to sell themselves for a dollar a day, women’s lives are deeply complicated yet beautiful, and that our stories deserve to be told.
Jordyn Fitch is from Miami, FL, works as a hop production assistant, binges television unhealthily and is interested in studying film and media studies with a concentration in screenwriting.