By Cory Bilicko
Viewing a play about early 20th-Century African-American strife takes on a new life when there’s a black president in office– the characters’ hopes and dreams are more promising, their setbacks a bit less heart-breaking, and each accomplishment seems a greater stride toward the tremendous Civil Rights moment that was last week’s Inauguration.
Long Beach Playhouse’s current production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel provides a moving and insightful look into the lives of black Americans as they struggle to define themselves within the cultural limitations of 1905 New York City.
The set is perfectly functional, the costumes (characters in and of themselves) are appropriately impressive, and the cast is full of vitality, intelligence and pathos at just the right moments to tell the story of Esther (Chandra Hartman), a black seamstress nearly resolved to a life of spinsterhood when she receives a letter from a faraway suitor (Scott Johnson). Thanks to the talents of the cast and crew, it’s that story that is the real star of the show. Part biography, part historical romance, part Shakespearean tragedy, Nottage’s tale was woven from her educational background, extensive research and her own heritage.
The play was inspired by her grandmother, a seamstress who specialized in intimate apparel for women, who arrived in New York City in 1902. She was a homely, deeply religious woman whose seven younger sisters believed she’d never marry. Despite that familial lack of faith in her, she began correspondence with a Caribbean man who was working on the Panama Canal– a man who would become the playwright’s great-grandfather.
Using that family story as a starting point, Nottage began doing research on black culture when she found an image in a lingerie history book of a white satin wedding corset embossed with orange blossoms– dated 1905. That photo served as a central item that she would build upon, as she pored over photographs of Old New York and the Panama Canal Zone, as well as newspapers from 1905– especially the ads and classified pages.
Intimate Apparel feels well informed by the author’s studies; there’s a strong historical context provided by a background of the Canal’s development, the verge of the Industrial Revolution, and the infancy of the Suffragette Movement.
Playing Esther, Hartman at first appears a bit too low-key on the stage, but it soon becomes clear that that timidity is what the character is about. She’s not the love-wise landlady Mrs. Dickson (Dawn L. Brown), who harshly scorns Esther for her naiveté with far-off men who court women with charming letters. She’s certainly not her best friend Mayme (Erryn Lewis), the hooker with the heart of silver who reconciles her occupation by hitting the ivories and swigging gin. And she’s nearly polar-opposite to her client Mrs. Van Buren (Stephanie Schulz), the wealthy, white Manhattan socialite.
But Esther learns lessons, directly and otherwise, from each of the women: from Mrs. Dickson, that fellows usually misrepresent themselves to get into your corset (and your pocketbook); from Mayme, that love trumps friendship; and from Mrs. Van Buren, that marriage isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, especially when you’re barren.
The most valuable lesson though seems to come from her relationship with Mr. Marks (Sean Engard), the Jewish fabric salesman who, intentionally or not, seduces her with his passion for exquisite textiles. Theirs is a beautiful, sweet love that will never be– compliments of strict tradition and social morés alike.
With Robert Craig’s direction, the Playhouse’s Intimate Apparel is a “seamless,” engaging story and a reminder of how far we’ve come.
Intimate Apparel will continue through Feb. 28 in the Studio Theatre at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim Street. Tickets for: Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm or Sunday matinees at 2pm: $22; Seniors (60+): $20; Students (only w/valid ID): $12. For more information, visit www.lbph.com or call (562) 494-1014.