Yet, life isn't always fair - which, as is driven home in this play, is no reason for us not to be.
Set in 1905, Intimate Apparel tells the story of Esther, a 35-year old African American woman who moved from North Carolina years prior to seek her fortune as a seamstress in New York City. She is excellent at her trade, humble, religious, frugal and discrete – all of which make her successful and a confidante and friend to wealthy white women and prostitutes alike.
In spite of her success, her two dreams – of love and marriage and of owning a beauty salon where African American women will receive the same quality of pampering and care as her wealthy white patrons do in theirs – remain unfulfilled.
She does marry but the man proves to be little more than an opportunist who takes all her savings for the long-sought-after salon and squanders them on drink, gambling and prostitutes. And the seeming one true love of her life, a Jewish cloth merchant with whom she does business and who reciprocate her feelings, lies far beyond a cultural and racial divide which would seem to make anything more than a warm business relationship impossible.
Yet, rather than take these setbacks and obstacles as defeat, Esther, with the same grace and character with which she has lived her entire life, begins again. This is where the play ends – at a new beginning – but one can’t help but wonder, and hope, Esther will succeed in all her dreams in the end.
Nottage is a well-known, highly regarded African American playwright. She received a Pulitzer Prize for her play Ruined and numerous other awards for her work. Her writing often focuses on the lives of women – African American women, female victims of war in the Congo, women’s rights and struggles for fair and equal treatment. And Intimate Apparel is an excellent example of Ms. Nottage’s talent, sensitivity and insight into her subject matter.
The University of Missouri, St. Louis (UMSL) theatre department has again mounted an impressive production of a challenging work.
The play is long and tends to drag in the second half of act one. I don’t know if this is attributable to the script or to this production of it but my gut says the script owns this relatively minor inconvenience.
Set and lighting by Glen Anderson are superb, creating four distinct play spaces, always present, yet nicely and tightly integrated into the fabric of the story. There is one minor lighting exception: periodically, a fixture used to back light an actor behind a scrim is unmasked by the actor allowing the fixture to shine directly into the eyes of the audience. It is a minor disturbance but one which would be nice to fix.
Costumes by student Taylor Dunham, under the guidance of UMSL faculty member Felia Davenport, are also beautifully done. Minor costume malfunctions aside, Dunham took us back to 1905 New York in broad brush and detail which lent full authenticity to Anderson’s sense of place.
Sound design, also by Anderson, needs some improvement. An important element of the story is the set of letters written by George Armstrong to Esther, the man she eventually marries. Director ‘Niyi Coker, Jr. establishes a very interesting and potentially effective convention of having the letters read as voice over with the actor playing George silhouetted against the scrim. However, due in part to a sometimes difficult to understand accent and in part due to location and direction of sound, these are not always easy to understand.
Now for the acting and directing.
There are no “easy” parts in this play but there is one exceptionally challenging role, that of Esther, played admirably by UMSL student Nabeehah Azeez. Azeez is in every scene. She is the principle character in every scene. She is the thread which sews the many different scenes into the whole cloth of a play. When not on stage speaking she is in a hurried costume change because scene changes are, themselves, seamless, almost invisible.
And, while I believe Azeez’s acting will benefit from more experience and coaching, my hat is off to her for carrying this show on her most able shoulders. Azeez is mostly convincing, often moving, and always the single most important presence on the stage. And, she is almost flawless and always tireless in moving this play along from curtain up to curtain down - a noteworthy performance for all of the above reasons.
The finest performance of the evening was turned in by Vanika Spencer as Mrs. Dickson, the mistress of the rooming house which Esther uses as both home and workshop. There are moments of sheer beauty and masterful acting displayed in her vocal and facial expression. Spencer has a gift – a naturalness which creates the illusion of the character with such seeming comfort and ease.
Almost as good was Ariel Cummings who played the sassy, street-savvy prostitute, Mayme. Cummings’ characterization was, perhaps, a bit caricature-ish, but she, too, has a style and expressiveness which brings you immediately and fully into her character’s world.
In fact, all the acting in his production was good – strong, convincing, full of story and personality.
Sophie Powell as Mrs. Van Buren, a wealthy white woman who feels her own kind of love for Esther, does a lovely job of portraying an over-drinking, under-appreciated bourgeois socialite.
Matthew Amend, the only non-UMSL student in the cast, plays the Jewish cloth merchant, Mr. Marks. He, too, is good, although at times I felt he might benefit from more character study and attention to accent and mannerism.
Fmally, there is Jason Little as George Armstrong. His character is made particularly demanding due to the accent he must maintain throughout the play. At times the accent is so pronounced, I found it hard to understand what he was saying. At other times, although seldom, I noticed him falling out of his accent – the single biggest pitfall for actors who are speaking in dialects not native to them.
A final word about the directing. It is often nearly impossible to know who contributes what to a production. Theatre is, afterall, a very collaborative art form. But there are touches, brush strokes here and there, which I – hopefully accurately - attribute to Coker.
The film clips projected on the scrim at the top of the show depicting New York street scenes during the era of the play helped create a total sense of place at the very outset. This was a beautiful touch and very helpful for those of us unfamiliar with the dress, street life, and times of 1905. A small head-scratcher for me were the headlines at the end of each act prominently projected on the scrim. Maybe I was just too tired or too slow of mind, but I missed the point of them.
The seamless movement from scene to scene, from one play space on stage to another – another deft touch.
The use of ragtime music throughout (although at times the actual sound seemed to need attention) combined with a most interesting curtain call all created an atmosphere which fully transported me out of St. Louis, on a wet Friday evening in January, into the world of this play, this time, this place and these people. And, while I can't be sure, I suspect Coker has a shaping hand in guiding the acting and actors through a demanding script. Very effective directing.
In closing, I want to point out what a value it is to have theatre of this kind and caliber available to audiences in St. Louis and at such affordable prices. UMSL theatre is a terrific bargain, one well worth exploring for those not yet acquainted with it.