Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 23, 2024

The play Intimate Apparel’s bittersweet tale

By ASTHA BERRY | November 16, 2017

Sleep-deprived and in a slight food coma after my first time properly brunching, I was nowhere nearly as excited as I usually am about plays as I trudged to Everyman Theatre to see Intimate Apparel. Part of me was thrilled to go to a professional performance, while another part was mentally preparing myself for the 1 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. commitment.

Everyman is a theater dedicated to character-driven storytelling, made up of thespians from the DMV area. The best way to get there is by taking the Charm City Circulator Purple route to its Fayette Street stop and then walking west.

As someone who regularly goes to performances on campus after a quick FFC meal, I forgot how much of a hassle and time commitment navigating public transportation can be, especially in cold weather.

That being said, after spending all day watching and talking about theater, I went to another show that night. Make of that what you will — well, you’ll probably just make out that I really love theater; I do.

But Intimate Apparel was not just any happy-go-lucky play. For lack of a better word, I was shook. So shook, I cancelled my date for that night, wary of men who might try to rob me of my dreams.

(This decision was supported by other audience members, but not taken as a good explanation from my very confused date.)

I definitely would not recommend this play for a blossoming couple. Instead, I spent a good portion of my evening discussing the play with my friends, exclaiming over the plot twists and the symbolism.

Intimate Apparel focuses on a black seamstress, Esther, who begins the play hearing about all the other young women getting married and lamenting that she is getting older and is too plain to attract the attention of a man.

Of course, she then receives a letter from Mr. George Armstrong, a laborer working on the Panama Canal, whom she has never met. He wants someone sweet to think of and they begin a romantic correspondence (yes this part was very unrealistic, but you’ll move past it in the moment).

The only problem with this set up is that Esther cannot read or write, so she asks Mrs. Van Buren, her rich, white customer for whom she sews intimate apparel, to help her. Things are further complicated by her relationship with Mr. Marks, the Hasidic Jewish man who sells her beautiful fabric and understands her love of clothing like nobody else.

The play touches on themes of loyalty, love and how far someone will go to realize their dreams — and how we allow those dreams to be destroyed. Esther marries George, and ends up supporting him financially instead of investing her earnings in her own goal of opening a beauty salon. In turn he complains that relying on his wife for money makes him feel emasculated and is unfaithful.

Intimate Apparel does not have a happy ending: Esther wants many things and gets none of them. Eventually George leaves her and she must move to the house full of young girls she started out in and continue to work as a seamstress. Esther’s last moments onstage mirror her first, but this time a caption appears: “Unidentified Negroe Seamstress Ca. 1905.”

When the lights faded after that final scene I just couldn’t help but blink back tears. Later I discovered that the story was based off of the playwright’s great-grandmother’s life.

After everything she had gone through, Esther was reduced to such a caption. Unidentified in her struggles, her progress and her setbacks in a way that historians would never know.

How many remarkable stories go untold? How eerily relevant was the way she was forced to choose between her husband/family life and her ambitious dreams? How often do women hide their strength for fear of making a man feel inadequate? How natural was it to simply want to be loved and held?

Was it really so easy to see what would happen in her toxic relationship? As an audience member, maybe, but not for someone in the midst of the situation. Maybe, the answer isn’t as obvious — for the good or the bad?

All the foreshadowing and carefully orchestrated chemistry with Mr. Marks led the audience to believe there would be a pay-off but there just wasn’t. Because life is not just a performance, and the actors may or may not play impactful roles — unless you let them (but even then, it might not work out).

Honestly, I still cannot fully articulate what my take-away was, but the ending evoked just such a strong feeling inside of me: a mix of pride, sadness and admiration from the image of her going right back to working. In a world of cinematic happy endings, reality hurts.

Intimate Apparel is closing this weekend, and though it is a painful play to watch, it’s a beautiful one as well. I encourage anyone who has the chance to share in Esther’s story.

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