Depending on who you ask, a corset is either a symbol of feminine beauty and sexuality, or one of women’s subjugation—a literal and figurative means of suffocation—or both. In the hands of lauded playwright Lynn Nottage, and those of her nimble heroine Esther, it’s not that simple.
Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” now running at Everyman Theatre through Nov. 19 under the direction of Tazewell Thompson (who directed “Ruined” by the same author at Everyman in 2015, a production that shared three cast members with “Intimate Apparel”), Esther (played by Dawn Ursula, deservedly cast once more as Nottage’s protagonist, again a businesswoman) is a seamstress in turn of the century New York who specializes in crafting women’s undergarments. For her, a corset is not merely a piece of lingerie; it has a story—there are the origins of the fabric and lace and how it arrived in Esther’s hands, who will wear the piece and why. There’s even a story in how silk feels against one’s back. And then there’s the story only Esther knows: the 18 years of labor spent at her machine, located in her bedroom apartment in a boarding house full of women; the small profit from her sales that she tucks into pockets of a quilt made from fabric scraps—a fund for a future beauty parlor she hopes to open in service of fellow black women.
While Esther has devoted her life to making women feel attractive, and dreams of making them feel even more pampered, such treatment is of little interest to Esther herself. She dresses modestly, wears no makeup, and, at 35, has never been with a man, though she hopes to marry one day. She finds gratification merely in pleasing her clients, seeing them admire themselves and her fine handiwork in the mirror. Her two favorite customers couldn’t be more dissimilar: One, Mrs. Van Buren (Beth Hylton), is a white Southern belle, wealthy and married, privileged but painfully repressed. The other, Mayme (Jade Wheeler) is a black prostitute—a self-made businesswoman like Esther, though Mayme feels more liberated than incomplete in the single life.
But when we meet Esther, she is not single for long. Out of the blue she receives a letter from George (Bueka Uwemedimo), a laborer working on the construction of the Panama Canal, and they strike up a correspondence, which illiterate Esther keeps going with the help of Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme. With their expertise, Esther’s messages go from friendly introductions to the 1905 equivalent of sexts to full-blown love letters, and they become engaged. George sails to New York, they marry, and—surprise—Esther finds her new husband is not the smooth talker, caring lover, and dedicated worker he’d made himself out to be in his letters. But it’s too late to swipe left.
Now a married woman with a gold-digging spouse, Esther’s labor and craft take on new meaning, as do her relationships with her clients and her fabric supplier, an observant Romanian Jew named Mr. Marks (Drew Kopas), whose tenderness and appreciation for good silk clearly make for a better albeit forbidden match.
Like the story of the corset, “Intimate Apparel” is ultimately a familiar story of woman being defined and stifled by man. But the play, again like the corset, is present for the private lives and dreams of women—black women, in particular, whose interiority would rarely unfold in such detail on major stages if not for Nottage—and the connections they form when they overlap. That rare view is worth enduring the sight of men, once again, ruining everything.
“Origin of the Species”
The Biblical creation myth pegs all human folly on women just because Eve deigned to access knowledge. But evolution and the story of the first hominids aren’t so kind to women either: That history has been told by big great male geniuses, who, naturally, tell us that man discovered fire, man learned how to use stones as tools, man created civilization. The term “man” here might be a proxy for “humankind,” as is often the case, but that exclusionary language has proven damaging enough on its own.
In her 1987 two-hander “Origin of the Species,” now receiving a run directed by Erin Riley at the Strand Theater through Nov. 19 to kick off their 10th season of women-focused theater, Bryony Lavery attempts to right this disastrous wrong in perhaps the most literal way imaginable: by digging up an early female human and letting her tell the story.
This early woman comes to us by way of Molly, an eccentric archaeologist in her golden years. She relays to the audience from her artifact-stuffed Yorkshire cottage how she traveled to East Africa ostensibly for a dig—though really, she says, she embarked on the journey to find herself a man (why someone would cross thousands of miles to an archeological site where there are more bones than breathing men is beyond me; Laverny never really illuminates). Instead, she finds her four-million-year-old female ancestor beneath the dirt, still breathing. Molly quietly smuggles her miraculous find, whom she names Victoria, back to Yorkshire and begins to teach her the English language and customs.
As she demonstrates to Victoria how to identify colors and use her imagination among other things, Molly studies and interrogates her ancestor in an attempt to uncover secrets about the beginning of human life. Struggling with her limited but growing vocabulary, Victoria signals to Molly it was woman, not man, who discovered fire; woman, not man, who figured out how to use a sharp stone to skin animals for their hides.
Molly, like most, has learned everything she knows about everything from men, and has accepted most of their stories as fact—though not without skepticism. Among the various male-authored scientific texts Molly reads to Victoria with an eyebrow raised, a real quote from one of the founders of social psychology, Gustave Le Bon: “Women represent the most inferior forms of human evolution. . . . They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without a doubt, there exists some distinguished women, very superior to the average man, but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as for example, of a gorilla with two heads. Consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”
Together, these two old women begin to relearn the world just as their species races toward extinction (the result of man’s “achievements”). Often, their journey takes distracting turns that appear directionless. But while Lavery’s ambitious attempt to reach a summation of the history of humankind proves at times convoluted, her story is grounded by tender performances from Janet Constable Preston as Molly and Nicole Millins-Teasley as the equally inquisitive Victoria. Their exchanges offer an intimate manifestation of one of the most paramount rules in science: Question everything.