If you follow independent Bay Area theatre—particularly its ever-dwindling Black theatre presence—you may feel a sense of déjà vu hearing that Lorraine Hansberry Theatre produced Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel (through April 16 at Magic Theatre). The production was scheduled to open in March 2020 before it had to be postponed “for a few weeks” as everyone sheltered-in-place. Those “few weeks” became two years.
In that time, the reason for the postponement (the pandemic) hasn’t abated, but a few things have changed at LHT. For starters, Oakland’s Margo Hall stepped in as Artistic Director. Then the oft-nomadic company found a new performance home as residents of The Magic Theatre, where Intimate Apparel now performs—the 2020 show was booked at the longtime home of the African-American Shakespeare Company). Finally, the show had to switch out its two male actors, though most other aspects remain the same (original actor Kim Saunders shares the role of Mrs. Van Buren with Miriam Ani).
So, after two years, a 2021 audio performance with Z Space, and only a so-so COVID check at the door, what’s the result of the long wait? A mostly well-acted show that never reaches as high as it should.
Intimate Apparel is the story of Esther (Jeunée Simon), a Black “spinster” and seamstress of women’s undergarments in 1905 New York. She lives and operates from the boarding house of the wizened Mrs. Dickson (Marjorie Crump Shears), who helped raise Esther and would love to see the introverted tenant married off. Normally, Esther’s day-to-day is simple: shopping for fabric from Mr. Marks (Samuel Vegas), with whom she shares an unspoken attraction; fitting garments on her upscale clients, such as the sad Mrs. Van Buren; and sharing her company with close friend (Jasmine Milan Williams), a sex worker.
Esther’s only real long-term plan is to save enough money to open her own beauty parlor. She nearly has enough put away to do so. Her plans change when she begins receiving love letters from George Armstrong (Khary Moye), a Caribbean man working construction on the Panama Canal. With the help of Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren, the illiterate Esther replies to George as someone who isn’t really her. But is anyone really who the world thinks they are?
In addition to a strong script by Nottage, the production benefits from the performances of always reliable performers (some of whom I’ve worked with before). Having seen Jeunée Simon frequently exude pure confidence, it’s hard to picture her as wallflower Esther. She’s best in the role when tapping into Esther’s longing and heartbreak, particularly in the latter half of the play. Jasmine Williams brings the appropriate amount of spitfire to Mayme, someone who’s too busy making a living to be consumed with fantasies of the good life.
I’m not familiar with the work of Miriam Ani or Samuel Vegas, they each do well in their respective portrayals of the white-privileged sadness of Mrs. Van Buren and the dogmatic solitude of Mr. Marks. Yet, the unofficial star of the show is Marjorie Crump Shears, whose turn as Mrs. Dickson sparkles each time she’s on set.
Sadly, Khary Moye never quite reaches the bar set by his castmates in this production. It’s a performance that illuminates the show’s inability to match the strong performances of the greater ensemble. Although some aspects of Tom Hird’s cramped set can be attributed to a lack of resources, director Jan Hunter never experiments with the space to suggest a greater scale than what can be shown.
When transitions are signified by Kevin Myrick’s lights and omnipresent projection screen, they’re done under Hunter’s direction with awkward set movements by cast members and stage hands. They never seamlessly flow from one scene to the next, making the whole production seem not all that different from a staged reading that just happens to have full costumes.
It’s comforting to know that LHT has found a new home under the guidance of an AD who’s a great performer in her own right. To a degree, they can be forgiven for both their return to live performances and the first in their new digs. After a two-year wait, the show finally shows off the work of most of its cast, but the rest of the show never matches those skills.
INTIMATE APPAREL runs until April 16 at The Magic Theatre at Fort Mason, San Francisco. Tickets and information here.