Students explore both race and romance in “Intimate Apparel”

Photo courtesy of MHC Theater Department Mrs. Van Buren, played by Alice Wilkinson ’17, reads a letter over the shoulders of her seamstress, Esther, played by Robyn Sutton-Fernandez ’17. 

Photo courtesy of MHC Theater Department
Mrs. Van Buren, played by Alice Wilkinson ’17, reads a letter over the shoulders of her seamstress, Esther, played by Robyn Sutton-Fernandez ’17. 

BY NAIEKA RAJ '19

The department of theater arts opened its fall season with Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” directed by Hampshire College professor Natalie Sowell. Set in 1905, the play explores themes of race, class and gender through the eyes of a New York City seamstress named Esther, played by Robyn Sutton-Fernandez ’17. 

“By firmly centering the life of an African American woman on stage, playwright Lynn Nottage forces us to consider why this is such a rarity,” said Sowell. “I am so grateful for the opportunity to help share this story.” 

Sowell encouraged the audience to consider the corset, a symbol occurring throughout the play, as a metaphor for life that “demonstrates how women’s bodies themselves were confined.” The intricate costumes, designed by Phuong Nguyen ’17 sparkled on stage and captured the audience’s attention. 

Theater arts major Caledonia Wilson ’19 appreciated the set design, which featured realistic wooden furnishings and other dual-purpose pieces, all moved by a stage crew dressed in era-appropriate costume. The hanging clothes line, brick walls and window paneling added to the authentic feel. “This looks more like a Broadway play and less like a school performance,” said Wilson. 

The audience reacted emotionally throughout the performance, with audible laughs, sighs and even the occasional exclamation like, “Don’t do it!” Sarah Shuler ’20 was especially vocal during scenes between characters Esther and Mr. Marks, played by Sonya Robinson ’20.  “The chemistry is just too much,” she said.  “[I] loved the scene where Mr. Marks deflected a touch from Esther because it captured his nervousness but also reflected his deep-rooted connection to religion and faith.” 

Shuler, along with the rest of the audience, engaged in some light heckling as the tension between these characters grew, but never so much as to hinder the show. For Caroline Shelton ’17, “the active audience added more life to the performance.” 

Act One ended with a polaroid wedding photo of Esther and Mr. Marks projected onstage. The caption read “Unidentified Negro Couple.” During intermission, audience members who sensed a downfall for the protagonist eagerly discussed potential plotlines. “Despite everything the characters had been through, they still remained unidentified,” said Aviva North ’19, “[I am] sitting at the edge of my seat.” 

Haimi Nguyen ’19 felt sorry for Esther because “after spending her whole life working hard, she was betrayed by the love she so deserved.” Nguyen said that although the story took place in 1905, its themes of race and exploitation are still relevant today: “Women of color are constantly being taken advantage of in our society.” 

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