Monday, February 03, 2020

Compelling “INTIMATE APPAREL” at Ensemble

Lynn Nottage is an African American multi-prize-winning playwright.  A rare and important theatrical voice, she is noted for her lyric and powerfully expressive use of language and her examining the plight of marginalized people.  

“She's an actor's gift with sly one-syllable humorous punch words; poetic paintings of physical and emotional landscapes; dramatic conflict that pulls no punches and is not afraid to make sympathetic characters unsympathetic; and an intimate knowledge of loneliness and passion.”

Her writing style is well-showcased in “INTIMATE APPAREL,” now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.  It is a turn-of-the-century “feminist lament of intelligent, talented women defined and controlled by men,” and is based on the real life experiences of her grandmother.
The time is 1905, the place is the tenement district of New York City. Esther, a plain-looking talented black seamstress, lives in a boarding house for women.  She sews intimate apparel for clients who range from wealthy white patrons to black prostitutes.
With a desire to open a beauty parlor to cater to African American women who have no place to relax and recover from their daily drudgery, Esther has squirrelled away a sizable amount of money, which she keeps hidden in a patch-work quilt on her bed.  
She notes that many of the boarding house patrons marry and move away.  They are not as talented as her, and probably not any more attractive, which leads to her frustration in not finding a husband, thus insuring a different future.
By way of a church acquaintance, she begins to receive letters from a lonesome Caribbean man named George Armstrong who is working on the Panama Canal. 
Esther is illiterate, so one of her white patrons not only reads the letters to her, but also respond.  The letters flow back and forth and soon George has persuaded her that they should marry, sight unseen. 
In reality, Esther has become attracted to a Hasidic shopkeeper from whom she buys fabric, but the impossibility of the match is obvious to them both, and Esther consents to marry George. 
When George arrives in New York, it becomes readily apparent that he is not the man he presented himself to be and is using Esther as a means to enter this country and to finance his whoring, drunken ways.  
After a short period of time, in order to get rid of him, Esther gives him her hard-earned money, returns to the boarding house where her journey started determined to use her gifted hands and her sewing machine to “refashion her dreams and make them anew from the whole cloth of her life's experiences.”
The Ensemble production, under the meticulous direction of Sarah May, is spell-binding.  The performances are nicely textured and the pathos wells to the surface.
Kimberly L. Brown gives a tour-de-force performance as Kimberly.  We feel deeply for the woman because, not only from the way in which the part is written, but because Brown fashions a real person with real feelings and emotions.  Bravo!
Leilani Barret is slimy-right as the smooth-talking George, a well-honed manipulator and player!  
Craig Joseph was tender and charming as the shy Mr. Marks.  Zyrece Montgomery was on-point as the prostitute.  Both Reva Golden, as Mrs. Dickson, and Diana Frankhauser, as Mrs. Van Buren, did a nice turn in developing real women.
Ian Hinz’s set, light and projections help develop the right visual effects.
Dialect coach Chuck Richie did an excellent job of working with the actors in perfecting the needed vocal characterizations without having accents so heavy that they could not be understood.
Capsule judgment: “Intimate Apparel” is a well-honed script which gets a superior production under the adept direction of Sarah May.  This is a play well-worth seeing!

INTIMATE APPAREL” runs through February 16, 2020 on Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2.  Ensemble is housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

Ensemble’s next production is ‘KINDERTRANSPORT” featuring Dorothy Silver, Cleveland’s first woman of the stage, and Laura Perotta Ford, from March 6-29, 2020.  Tickets will go fast, so call now and reserve your seats!