Intimate Apparel

by Lynn Nottage

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Act 1, Scenes 4–6 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1121

Scene 4

Mayme, a beautiful black woman in her early thirties, is in her boudoir playing piano when Esther enters with a carpet bag. Mayme, a prostitute, is upset that one of her clients has torn her silk robe, telling Esther that "for a dollar, they think they own you." Esther assures Mayme that she can fix the tear. 

Mayme is glad to see Esther (and not another customer) at the door, even though she knows Esther doesn't approve of her. As she plays piano, she describes her father's dislike for "colored" ragtime music, which he felt was improper: as a child she was punished with the switch for playing, although she was very talented. 

Esther brings out a pale blue corset, explaining to Mayme that it is just like Mrs. Van Buren's. When Mayme expresses delight, Esther notes that Mrs. Van Buren, despite her money and class, wants what Mayme is wearing. When she describes how Mr. Marks talked her into the fabric, Mayme deduces that Esther is "sweet on him." Esther attempts to deflect by saying that Mr. Marks is Jewish. Mayme continues to press her, however, and Esther admits that she is a virgin. When Esther asks Mayme to stop her line of questioning, Mayme becomes slightly self-conscious about what Esther must think of her. 

Esther says she is being courted by "a gentleman"—the man from Panama, whom she has clearly already told Mayme about. Mayme makes a joke at first, asking what Esther is "expecting," but when Esther, clearly wounded, replies that she is expecting nothing, Mayme touches her face and tells her that of course she is. She shares her dream of being a concert pianist, and convinces Esther to share her own dream: owning a high-end beauty parlor. Hoping to one day achieve this goal, Esther has been saving money, which she stows in a quilt.

Esther asks Mayme whether she intends to remain a prostitute in a decade or two, when she is such a talented pianist. Mayme says her current situation is better than many, and that she "ain't waiting for anyone to rescue" her. The Panama man, she says, is not real. Esther counters that he is and that he writes every week. She shows Mayme the latest letter, and Mayme asks whether Esther has ever described to George what she looks like—meaning her figure rather than her face. Esther is scandalized, but when Mayme suggests sending George something "pretty" to think about, Esther asks for help writing back. Mayme's writing isn't as refined as Mrs. Van Buren's, but they decide they can simply tell George that Esther has pricked her finger. 

In his response, George thanks Esther for her letter, which he says warded off "temptation." There are girls in Panama who sell their bodies, George explains, but he craves a gentlewoman's touch. 

Scene 5 

Esther is sewing in her room when Mrs. Dickson enters with an opened letter and says George writes too much. Esther protests at her landlady opening her mail, to which Mrs. Dickson replies that she hopes Esther isn't expecting anything from this flirtation. According to Mrs. Dickson, Esther’s quilt and man in Panama won't make her happy; instead, she should seriously consider Mr. Charles. 

The scene shifts to Panama, where George is thanking Esther for having sent scraps of fabric to him. Then, it shifts again—this time to Mr. Marks's bedroom, where he is showing Esther a bolt of cobalt silk. 

The pair wrap colored silk around their shoulders and admire each other before becoming self-conscious. Esther offers to sew on Mr. Marks's missing button. When he demurs, Esther asks why he always wears black. To Mr. Marks's response that it is an act of faith, she asks whether marrying a stranger is also an act of faith. When Mr. Marks explains the tradition behind this type of marriage, Esther points out that he is a new country with different rules and expectations. Mr. Marks replies that he will not "throw away" old traditions that remind him of his relationship with God. 

Later, Esther presents Mrs. Van Buren with a kimono and corset made from Mr. Marks’s silk. Mrs. Van Buren confides that her husband, Harry, spat at her when she told him her period had come, and Esther asks why she endures such treatment. This appears to be an overstep, and Mrs. Van Buren immediately redirects the conversation to the opera. She jokes that she would like to take Esther to the opera and create a scandal, saying it is "easy" to be with Esther and that she looks forward to their visits and letter-writing. She confesses having once smoked opium and asks Esther what she has done that she shouldn't. Esther says she has touched someone she shouldn't have. 

The scene switches to George, who has now been corresponding with Esther for six months. George writes that he loves Esther and asks her to marry him. 

Scene 6 

In Mayme's boudoir, Esther tells Mayme she loves George and has accepted his proposal of marriage. She asks Mayme to come to church and witness the wedding, but Mayme says she hasn't been in a church for years. They toast Esther's marriage with gin, but Mayme tells Esther it will be inappropriate for her to visit when she is married. Esther insists that they will remain friends, and the pair sing a song together. 

In Esther's bedroom, she and Mrs. Dickson are packing. Sad to lose Esther as a tenant after eighteen years, Mrs. Dickson offers her some advice about marriage. When Esther compares their relationships, Mrs. Dickinson explains that her own mother was a washerwoman and wanted her to marry up, but she married Mr. Dickson instead—largely because she was thirty-seven and had no other options. Despite this, she did come to love him, and she advises Esther to make sure George loves her.

The scene briefly shifts to George, who writes that his ship is being held in Havana. 

Back in Mr. Marks's room, he asks why Esther has been away so long and says he has found something she will love. They have tea together, and Esther says she needs inexpensive fabric for a wedding gown. When she admits that the bride is herself, Marks congratulates her and offers her, as a gift, his most exquisite fabric. Esther weeps, and the two look at each other, unable to articulate their feelings. 

The scene moves through several tableaux: Mayme playing a rag; Mrs. Van Buren looking at herself in her mirror; Marks contemplating sewing his button back on; George and Esther meeting and getting married. The final tableau shows them as the subject of a photograph captioned "Unidentified Negro Couple, ca. 1905." 

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Act 1, Scenes 1–3 Summary


Act 2, Scenes 1–3 Summary