Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Esther Mills is a thirty-five-year-old African American seamstress living in a women’s boardinghouse in Manhattan in 1905. She sews intimate apparel for other women and longs to find a husband. Her skills as a seamstress are in high demand, but she dreams of opening a beauty parlor for black women with the money she has been saving for the past eighteen years.
Esther is uneducated and can’t read or write, so when George, a man working in Panama, begins writing letters to her, her friends and clients help her respond. She also flirts with Mr. Marks, though she cannot enter a relationship with him because he is Jewish and already engaged. Esther eventually marries George, but their marriage is short-lived: George demands Esther’s money and cheats on her with Mayme, a prostitute. In the end, Esther moves back to the boardinghouse, pregnant and without money.
Mrs. Dickson is the African American proprietor of the boardinghouse for women where Esther lives. She began running the boardinghouse after the death of her husband. Mrs. Dickson is often critical of Esther and warns her about entering into a relationship with George; nevertheless, she welcomes Esther back to the boardinghouse after her failed marriage at the end of the play.
Mrs. Van Buren
Mrs. Van Buren is a wealthy white socialite in her thirties and one of Esther’s clients. She feels unfulfilled in her marriage; her husband loses interest in her when she is unable to conceive. As Esther cannot write, Mrs. Van Buren assists in the correspondence between Esther and George. When Esther marries George, Mrs. Van Buren informs Esther that she misses writing letters with her and kisses her, thus revealing that she is attracted to Esther.
Mr. Marks is a Romanian Jewish immigrant and a textile merchant. He runs the fabric shop where Esther buys materials. Though he is engaged to be married to a woman in Romania, he has feelings for Esther, which she reciprocates. The impossibility of acting on their feelings is obvious to both parties, however. When Esther touches his hand near the beginning of the play, he pulls away, as his religion prevents him from touching women he is not married or related to—but near the end, when Esther gives him the smoking jacket and he tries it on, he allows her to smooth the fabric without flinching.
George is a handsome Barbadian man who is working on the Panama Canal. By way of mutual acquaintance, he begins corresponding with Esther and charms her through his letters. He later reveals that, like Esther, he did not actually write the letters he sent but had help from others. He proposes to Esther through one of these letters and seems to be a perfect gentleman, but he proves cold and dishonest after they are married. George laughs at Esther’s dream of opening a beauty parlor, demands the money she has been saving for eighteen years, gambles away her money, and cheats on her with a prostitute.
Mayme is an African American client of Esther’s and a prostitute. She can sing and play the piano and dreams of becoming a concert pianist, though she believes this to be impossible. Esther disapproves of her work, but the two are friends, and Mayme assists Esther in writing to George. When George sleeps with Mayme after his marriage to Esther, Mayme falls in love with him, not knowing that he is Esther’s husband. Esther realizes this and informs Mayme, who is horrified and stops seeing him as a client.