Alberta Theatre projects opens its season with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. It’s a love story that director Nigel Shawn Williams says is about finding hope in the face of formidable challenges. When everything you’ve strived for and aspired to has fallen apart, how do you pick yourself up and move forward? Williams says the play tells the story of a woman who chooses to carry on where others would have surrendered to despair.
The play is set in 1905 and follows Esther, a young African-American woman who lives in a boarding house in New York and sews intimate apparel for clients who range from wealthy patrons to prostitutes. With her talents in high demand she saves a good sum of money, hoping to use her savings to open a beauty parlor, and to find an ideal husband. When she receives increasingly romantic letters from a man named George from the Caribbean, she agrees to marry him even though they’ve never met. But her heart truly beats for Mr. Marks, a Jewish shopkeeper from whom Esther purchases her fabrics, and he seems to return her fondness. Their relationship is impossible, so she waits for George; but when he arrives, he turns out to be less than the ideal man and he soon shatters many of Esther’s hopes and ambitions. Intimate Apparel has been praised by innumerable critics and won numerous awards.
Williams says that when he first read the play he was drawn to the hope that permeates the story despite its pain and darkness.
“[Esther’s] journey is really a beautiful story,” he says. “The drama doesn’t work out the way she wanted it to. When you’re faced with that, what do you do? Do you go into hope or into despair? And I believe the play is ambiguous about that, but throughout the journey, Esther is going forward with the hope that there is happiness.”
It’s that strength of the human spirit that Williams loves about the play: The choice one must make between actively pursuing a better life or giving up and wallowing in self-pity.
The context of the story reinforces this theme of determinism and free will that Williams finds intriguing. In 1905, racial prejudice dictated one’s social role. Williams says that all the characters in the play have been told by a de facto caste system what they can do, how far they can go, and whom they can love, and for the characters the great challenge is whether to surrender to that or struggle through it and break out.
“Esther meets many people who are comfortable in their positions of unhappiness,” Williams says of the characters who accept their miserable state. “The interesting stories, the great human beings we like to see on stage are the ones who do not settle for that, who want more, who dream more.”
Williams maintains that despite the early 20th century setting of the play, the notion of the caste system and the impact it has on the lives of minorities still applies today. He argues that Intimate Apparel gives a voice to people who did not have one 100 years ago, and he thinks the play reminds us of how far we’ve come and that minorities today have stories and ought not to be invisible.
What sets Intimate Apparel apart from other love stories is twofold, says Williams — firstly, that it is superbly written; secondly, that the play is truly reflective of real human beings.
“These characters are the truest humans because they contradict themselves, they are flawed, like us... and we can truly see ourselves in the play.”
He cites the exchange of romantic love letters between George and Esther (written for Esther by two of her friends) as an example of people chasing an idealized version of romantic love. “I think this play poses that love doesn’t work — love is work. I think part of the journey of this play is a character realizing that love is not always a romantic ideal. That there is realness in it, that there is pain. And that that’s okay — that’s human.”