The Clarice Gets 'Intimate'Award-Winning Play Arrives at UMD for 1-Week Run
Cast Of "Intimate Apparel"

She lives in boarding house sewing intimate apparel for a range of customers in New York City.

Esther, an African-American seamstress, saves all of her earnings with the hopes of opening a beauty salon for black women in the pre-Depression era of 1905 where those of color were still very much feeling the affects left by slavery and living the reality that they are seen as lesser.

Like most of the women in the boarding house, Esther also has aspirations of marriage when she begins corresponding with a man in Panama who, even though the two haven’t met face-to-face, proposes marriage.

The twist and turns of the stage production “Intimate Apparel” is set to play out during a week-long run at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park.

The first performance is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 9.

The economics of the times, racial and cultural restrictions, frustration and gender stereotypes force women and men into certain roles in Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s production that’s directed by Helen Hayes Award nominee Jennifer Nelson.

“Nottage’s work explores the cultural intersections of early 20th century society through the lens of a talented black seamstress,” said Philip Kershaw, a senior theatre and history double major, who portrays George in the UMD School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies production of the play.

“New York City was less a melting pot and more so an elaborate mosaic where everyone brings their own unique piece to the work,” Kershaw said.

Elain Graham, who portrayed boarding house owner Mrs. Dickson in a previous performance but will not be in the Maryland play, said it’s really a new twist on the Shakespearean drama “Love’s Labors Lost.”

“It’s about a slice of African-American life at the turn of the century that you don’t often hear about,” Graham said.

“Even though it’s set in 1905, it plays into life right now. People will identify with the themes and the characters; it’s just a new way of seeing it. The heart wants what it wants, but because of the mores, and social standing, it can’t happen.”

As noted in the industry magazine Theater Mania, “Intimate Apparel” ultimately weaves together the lives of Esther; Mrs. Dickson; her upper-class client, Mrs. Van Buren; and Mayme, a gifted ragtime pianist and composer who makes her living as a prostitute, at one dollar a night.

These women have different takes on the divide between love and marriage. Esther longs to be touched but believes that she is too plain to attract a man.

Mrs. Dickson speaks from experience about the disappointments of trusting a man. Mrs. Van Buren, dripping with diamonds and a cynical lilt to her voice, has been spurned by her husband for not producing an heir while Mayme has divorced love from physical contact and shows passion only for the piano in her room.

The two men in the cast have different natures, races, and classes, but they share the desire for a life with someone to love.

George Armstrong is a laborer working in the hell of building the Panama Canal, where “a black man dies for every 20 feet” of digging. Mr. Marks is an unmarried, observant Orthodox Jew who runs the fabric shop where Esther buys her goods.

Mrs. Van Buren and Mr. Marks are white, the other characters are black, enforcing the chasm between the opportunities open to each of them.

The play hinges on George’s letters sent from Panama. Given Esther’s name by one of his fellow workers who knew her from church, George woos Esther with his eloquent prose. Their long-distance correspondence builds to a courtship and later, a marriage proposal.

After Esther accepts him, George comes to New York where they are married. The second act of the play follows their “happily ever after” — when the couple begins to learn each other’s secrets and discover that things aren’t always as they seem on paper.

But if the relationships between the men and women aren’t fulfilling, the strength of the women’s friendships and their support for each other are not.

In addition to the performance at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, there will be two conversations to discuss the play further, one on Sunday, October 11 at 2 p.m. featuring Dr. Julius Fleming, Assistant Professor of English at University of Maryland and Dr. Soyica Diggs Colbert, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Theatre and Performance Studies at Georgetown University.

The other will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 14 with the director, cast and designers.

For more information and tickets, visit

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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