The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Playwright Lynn Nottage recommends sparse scenery for Intimate Apparel, a two-act play that flows from beginning to end with few blackouts or pauses. While the play employs realist narrative conventions, its locations shift quickly, sometimes within the same scene. The first scene depicts Esther, a seamstress, making a gown for a girl who is getting married downstairs. Mrs. Dickson, Esther’s landlady, enters and asks her to come down to the party. Esther, who has just turned thirty-five, lets slip her bitterness at seeing so many girls get married when she cannot find a man. Mrs. Dickson offers to set her up on a date, but Esther refuses. Mrs. Dickson gives her a letter from George Armstrong, a man unknown to either of them. The scene shifts to George dictating his letter, recounting his experience digging the Panama Canal and requesting permission to continue writing to Esther.

In scene 2, Esther delivers a corset to Mrs. Van Buren, an upper-class white woman. Mrs. Van Buren discusses her discomfort at being asked why she does not have children, having been unable to conceive. She also believes that her husband has a mistress. Esther talks about her own lack of a husband and shows her client the letter from George. Mrs. Van Buren insists on helping Esther write a reply, and then George is shown talking about the difficulties with the canal and the comfort he received from Esther’s letter.

Scene 3 opens with Esther visiting Mr. Marks, her fabric supplier. He tries to sell her some Japanese silk, and there is an obvious attraction between them. She grasps his hand, but he pulls it away, telling her about his betrothed in Romania, whom he has never met. Jewish law forbids him from touching any other woman.

In scene 4, Esther delivers a corset to Mayme, a prostitute. Esther tells her about George and also about her dream of opening a beauty parlor with the money she has been hiding in the lining of her quilt. Esther lets Mayme read one of George’s letters, in which he has asked what she looks like. Mayme insists on helping Esther write the response. In another letter, George tells Esther that her letters are helping him fight off sin.

Scene 5 starts in Esther’s bedroom, where Mrs. Dickson warns her that George writes too often and that she should not trust him. She tears up George’s most recent letter. The scene then shifts to Mr. Marks’s shop, where Esther asks why he always wears black clothing, and he explains his Jewish traditions. She touches his collar, and he does not pull back. The scene shifts again to Mrs. Van Buren’s bedroom. Mrs. Van Buren’s husband spat at her the night before for not being pregnant. Esther tells her of her encounter with Mr. Marks and helps adjust her corset. Mrs. Van Buren reveals her own attraction toward Esther. George is shown writing another letter, in which he acknowledges his fear of death and his dreams...

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Intimate Apparel Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Davis, Viola. “Corsets as Metaphor.” Interview by Simi Horwitz. Back Stage 45, no. 18 (April, 2004). Interview with the actress who played Esther in Intimate Apparel’s New York run.

Gener, Randy. “Conjurer of Worlds.” American Theatre 22, no. 8 (October, 2005). Discusses Lynn Nottage’s use of history in her plays.

Isherwood, Charles. “Intimate Apparel.” Review of Intimate Apparel, by Lynn Nottage. Variety 394, no. 10 (April, 2004). Review of the play’s Off-Broadway run.

Lahr, John. “Unnatural History.” The New Yorker 80, no. 9. Psychological discussion of the characters in the play.

Nottage, Lynn. “Out of East Africa.” American Theatre 22, no. 5 (May, 2005). Nottage’s account of a trip to Africa that influenced her view of the theater.