The Department of Theatre at Northern Arizona University kicks off its 2017-18 season with a story from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage.
“Intimate Apparel” centers around Esther, a 35-year-old, single, African-American seamstress who specializes in elegant lingerie. Her profession has not only provided a stable income, but it’s acted as a leveler of class, race and religion. Through her work, Esther has come to know Mrs. Van Buren, a Southern belle who married into a wealthy family; Mayme, an African-American prostitute; and Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant. And all of them have struggled finding love within the constraints of their imposed labels.
Mrs. Van Buren, who arguably has an easy life, finds herself in a loveless marriage, unable to have children. Mayme, although a talented pianist, has had to choose prostitution as a career, stopping her from finding true intimacy. And Esther is doubly challenged: not only does she fear her age will preclude her from finding a partner, but the man she’s most interested in — Mr. Marks — is forbidden by his religion to be with her.
Director Robert Yowell explains the department’s decision to stage the drama. “‘Intimate Apparel’ is a very timely play about economic, social, gender and racial injustice. The play is set in 1905, but we are confronted with the same issues here and now. However, the play is not didactic, but presents these issues in a softer light. It’s about all of us who seek to love and be loved.”
The cast is aware of the timely issues in the play, but also of its heart and emotion.
Ella Joseph, who plays Esther, said, “Take a look at Charlottesville. People still believe that the color of our skin determines whether we deserve human rights. People still believe that one religion is superior to the other. Although these things still exist … love has the ability to break down these barriers.”
Nottage, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, was inspired by her own great-grandmother for the character of Esther. With “Intimate Apparel” and her other plays, Nottage brings to light the stories of the disenfranchised and the marginalized that would otherwise remain unknown.