The little known lives of African Americans form the basis for Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel.” The play takes place in lower Manhattan, 1905. Quincy Tyler Bernstiine as Esther conveys strength and determination while trying to please those she depends on.

Esther lives in a boarding house and earns her living by making corsets and other garments for wealthy women as well as prostitutes. She has reason to visit the fabric store run by Mr. Marks (Tasso Feldman.) You can see that they develop a rapport and a love for the fine fabrics he carries, imported from Scotland, Japan and other locales. However, their relationship will not advance: she is black and he is Jewish and in that time and place, there are too many restrictions for them to be other than on friendly terms. Yet he offers her delicate lace for her wedding dress. Her rich customer, Mrs. Van Buren (Kate MacCluggage) is taken with her, both for her discretion and companionship, as she unburdens her own marriage tensions.

Over time, many women in the boarding house find husbands and Esther has been involved in a long correspondence with George (Galen Kane), who is emigrating from the Caribbean and worked on the Panama Canal. He has now asked her to marry him. Although she agrees sight unseen, his letters indicate that they would be compatible. But there are deceptions with that, as well.

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She shares this exciting wedding news with Mrs. Dickson (Brenda Pressley) at the boarding house. On George and  Esther’s wedding night, when her shyness makes her fearful, she distract him by showing him the fine silk red smoking jacket she made for him with fabric from Japan.  Ultimately, the jacket has a role in revealing that he isn’t faithful to Esther and is having an affair with one of her customers, Mayme (Jessica Frances Dukes.) Mayme is a prostitute who also plays the piano and proudly shows off the jacket so generously given to her by her lover.

Over the years Esther has saved money to open her own beauty parlor. When George has an opportunity to invest in a partnership, she gives the money to him, not realizing that he will spend it on gambling and alcohol and just walk away. The play explores the need for love and affection, matters of trust and a host of other issues.

Jade King Carroll has directed a stellar cast, although at times George’s speaking doesn’t project when he faces upstage rather than towards the audience. The set by Alexi Distler is a fascinating two-story design, with Mrs. Van Buren’s bedroom and Mayme’s parlor on the upper level and George and Esther’s home down below. Staircases allow the actors to move from one locale to another with ease. Costumes by Dede M. Ayite reflect the turn of the century period and lighting by Nicole Pearce adds emotional relevance to the changing and volatile relationships. 

“Intimate Apparel” is a moving reflection of the times and struggles to make one’s life better. This insightful play continues at the McArthur Theatre Complex in Princeton through June 4. For tickets, call 609-258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.