New Jewish Theatre’s ‘Intimate Apparel’ traces history of keeping women in their place
A play by New Jewish Theatre looks at the constraints placed on women in the early 1900s: the pressure to marry early, within their race.
In much of the United States, interracial marriage would be illegal for another 60 years. Miscegenation laws forbade blacks and whites from joining in wedlock until 1967.
But even as “Intimate Apparel” illustrates that taboo, it helps the theater company break out of its own limitations, given its history of largely white casts. Four of the six characters in this play, produced by the Black Rep in 2005, are African-American. It’s the kind of opportunity New Jewish artistic director Kathleen Sitzer continually seeks.
“Part of the goal of New Jewish Theatre is to build multicultural bridges,” Sitzer said. “And part of my role is to find ways to bring other audiences into this theater to learn something about the Jewish experience.”
Corsets hold the status quo
“Intimate Apparel” by playwright Lynn Nottage follows the story of Esther, an African-American seamstress living in Harlem in 1905. She sews intimate apparel for clients ranging from a wealthy socialite to a sex worker/singer. Esther often works on lingerie for other women’s honeymoons. But marriage passes her by.
She has one near-miss romantic encounter and a seemingly promising postal correspondence with a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal. Ultimately, each relationship proves to be unsustainable.
Society restricts Esther’s choices, much like one of the stiff, painful undergarments of the era called a corset, that she creates for her clients.
“These corsets are actually characters in the play,” Sitzer said. “You can just see when they’re being put on, what kind of strictures and confinements are being put on them physically. So that’s a physical representation of what’s going on in their lives.”
St. Louis actor Jacqueline Thompson, who plays Esther, said she’s “around the same age” as her character: 35. Even in today’s world, Thompson identifies with Esther’s dilemma.
“You have these things in your mind about being married and having children by a certain age,” Thompson said. “So for me, not having those things at my age right now, that’s what scary about this piece — having to deal with that reality in my own life.”
‘How far one can go’
Esther’s brush with romance with a white fabric merchant named Mr. Marks can only go so far. In one scene, they discuss an exquisite piece of blue cloth embroidered with gold. He insists she deserves this finery, and encourages her to buy it.
“Oh, Lord, I do want it," she gushes, in a flirtatious interaction.
But when her darker hand grasps Mr. Marks’ paler one, he quickly pulls away. He's an Hasidic Jew, and his religion forbids him from touching a woman who isn’t his wife or relative.
Actor Jim Butz, who plays Mr. Marks, said their relationship isn't necessarily tragic, and that the scene is more than an examination of xenophobia.
“What I’m interested in, is how the barriers are necessary,” Butz said. “Like how far one can go in their identity as a Jewish man or an African-American or whatever it is, and say, ‘If I cross too far, I cease to be what I am.’”
The play takes place in a succession of lush boudoirs, ripe with red hues and generous displays of fabric.
A series of bedspreads rotates on and off a single bed to define each character’s particular bedroom.
Sitzer credits scenic designers Peter and Marjorie Spack for successfully devising the expansive and flexible set suggesting five different bedrooms, each one an intimate space.
“Theirs is an extraordinary concept,” Sitzer said. “The creativity they’ve come up with is fabulous.”
If you go:
New Jewish Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, 63146
Thursday-Sunday, through Feb. 12
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