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Working class, black, and 35: 'Intimate Apparel' takes a close look at a woman rarely seen

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Esther Mills is a poor black woman in a classist, racist, sexist world. Intimate Apparel is the play that tells her story: a story about the difficulty, yet necessity, of forging meaningful human relationships in a society that tries to box you in at every turn. As Esther, Aimee K. Bryant balances pragmatic realism with a luminous sense of hope.

Open Book
$30

Lynn Nottage is one of the country’s most lauded mid-career playwrights. Her recent Sweat just made her the first woman ever to win a second Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Nottage’s Intimate Apparel (2003) was a fine choice for Ten Thousand Things, a company where “intimate” is a routine mode of operation.

Bryant’s glorious performance is supported by a uniformly strong cast, with Austene Van taking the director’s chair for a production presented — per usual for Ten Thousand Things — in the round, with seats only a few rows deep. A few flexible set elements, designed by Stephen Mohring, do all the work that’s necessary to transport us among a few rooms in New York City circa 1905.

Esther, who makes a living sewing the play’s eponymous garments, is 35, single, and worried that she’ll never marry. Her romantic fortunes change when her deacon’s son, off working on the construction of the Panama Canal, mentions Esther’s name and marital eligibility to one of his fellow workers, a man from Barbados named George Armstrong (a seductive Darius Dotch).

George writes to Esther, and though the illiterate seamstress needs help reading and responding, his sweet words sweep her off her feet. Sight unseen, she accepts his marriage proposal; when the attractive George steps off the boat at the end of the play’s first act, Esther can’t believe her luck. In the second act, we learn whether George is really too good to be true.

We only meet a few of Esther’s acquaintances, and though they vary in their circumstances, all are hemmed in by unforgiving social strictures. One of Esther’s clients (Dame-Jasmine Hughes) is a lively but lonely African American prostitute; another (Karen Wiese-Thompson) is a wealthy white woman who’s trapped in a loveless marriage. Esther has a delicate flirtation with Mr. Marks (Kris Nelson), the Jewish merchant who supplies her fabric and sees her for the extraordinary woman she is.

Nottage’s play is precisely crafted and heartbreakingly human, showing how Esther and her friends find joy and companionship even amid their straitened circumstances. Quiet musical cues performed live by Annie Enneking, while a little heavy on the cheesy chimes, help conduct the show from scene to scene, and at one point the characters break into cathartic song.

In Ten Thousand Things’ lucid production, Intimate Apparel feels like an act of witness. We’re watching a character whose craft is a metaphor for her life: She provides crucial support, but she’s unseen. Esther’s whole existence is a rejoinder to the appallingly resurgent American discourse saying it’s a moral failure to be poor, that we shouldn’t mention racism because it hurts racists’ feelings, and that women’s bodies should be controlled by men.