Intimate Apparel at PlayMakers Repertory Company Chronicles a Black Seamstress’ Quest for Love and Respect in New York in 1905

Rasool Jahan (left) and Shanelle Nicole Leonard star as Esther and Mayme (photo by Jon Gardiner)
Rasool Jahan (left) and Shanelle Nicole Leonard star as Esther and Mayme (photo by Jon Gardiner)
Rasool Jahan (left) and Shanelle Nicole Leonard star as Esther and Mayme (photo by Jon Gardiner)
Rasool Jahan (left) and Shanelle Nicole Leonard star as Esther and Mayme (photo by Jon Gardiner)

PlayMakers Repertory Company will present Intimate Apparel, Brooklyn, NY African-American playwright Lynn Nottage’s prize-winning 2004 Off-Broadway play about the life and loves of a middle-aged African-American seamstress named Esther Mills, who lives in New York City at the dawn of the 20th century, on Jan. 25-29 and Jan. 31-Feb. 5 and Feb. 7-12 in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art.

After its world premiere from Feb. 21st to March 30th, 2003 at Baltimore, MD’s Center Stage and an April 11th to May 18th, 2003 run at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, the play made its Off-Broadway debut, starring Viola Davis as Esther, on March 17, 2004 at the Roundabout Theatre, where it ran through June 6, 2004 and won the 2004 Drama Desk Awards for Best Play (Lynn Nottage) and Outstanding Actress in a Play (Viola Davis) and the 2004 Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play and the John Gassner Memorial Playwriting Award (Lynn Nottage), plus the 2003-04 OBIE Awards for Performance (Davis) and Set Design (Derek McLane).

“I get so blessed to come home to PlayMakers, because every time I’m here, I’m doing I play I’ve never seen!” says Raelle Myrick-Hodges, who previously directed Topdog/Underdog (2008), I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda (2010), A Raisin in the Sun (2013) and The Mountaintop (also 2013) for UNC’s professional-theater-in-residence.

Myrick-Hodges adds, “I’d read Intimate Apparel, but I’d never been given the opportunity to work on it. What PlayMakers gives me the opportunity to do is to do a lot of the works that other producers may think I’m not available for.

“The production team here sees individuals and not genres of talent,” says Myrick-Hodges. “So, it’s different. I cultivated my vision as an artist at PlayMakers. Working under new artistic direction here is truly an honor. I love the company and the staff at PlayMakers, so when [PlayMakers Repertory Company producing artistic director] Vivienne [Benesch] asked if I would direct Intimate Apparel, I knew I had to say yes.”

Raelle Myrick-Hodges says, “Esther Mills (played at PlayMakers by Rasool Jahan) is an African-American woman in 1905 New York who has made an independent life for herself sewing intimate apparel. Her work brings her into close contact with people where race and religion would otherwise keep them apart, including a Hasidic Jew and fabric merchant, Mr. Marks (Benjamin Curns).

“When Esther begins receiving love letters from George (Myles Bullock), a young man working on the Panama Canal, both lonely socialite Mrs. van Buren (Allison Altman) and prostitute Mayme (Shanelle Nicole Leonard) help her to continue the long-distance flirtation,” explains Myrick-Hodges. “[Esther has] been living in Mrs. Dickson’s boarding house (Kathryn Hunter-Williams) for years, saving up to start her own business; but now she has to make a decision about whether or not her desire for intimacy conflicts with her dreams for the future.”

<em>Intimate Apparel</em> stars Rasool Jahan and Myles Bullock as Esther and George (photo by Jon Gardiner)
Intimate Apparel stars Rasool Jahan and Myles Bullock as Esther and George (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Myrick-Hodges confesses, “I love how Esther’s job takes us in and out of the lives of so many different people. It’s a beautiful depiction of both immigrants and ‘Americans’ in a changing New York City landscape.

“Our production is still very much set in 1905; but when I read the play, I was so taken by how relevant it is to issues of identity and blackness today,” she explains. “African-American women are currently in a state of metaphorically ‘mending’ in all facets of their life: love, work, reputation. Esther is a complicated and eloquent metaphor for today’s black women. She’s the original ‘black girl magic’ chica — doing it all gracefully and graciously, even when brokenhearted.”

Myrick-Hodges says, “I consider [Intimate Apparel] my first period piece, because I have an extraordinary costume designer, and I did not know what a corset was. So, for me, it is a period piece. When you’re looking at women of color that are wearing pieces from the earlier part of the century, that is a period piece for me. So, that’s where it lends itself — it changes the physicality of these acting artists, it changes intention and objective and how you go about navigating a relationship when it’s a period piece. And that for me is new.

“Even though it’s a period piece,” she adds, “the only note I give to acting artists and our design team is, ‘Let’s not lie.’ Just because it’s 1905, doesn’t mean that having your heart break is that different from having your heart break in October 2016. I think that what I translate from contemporary work is the interpersonal relationships of the characters.

“What is interesting about the period itself is watching contemporary acting artists being amazed at how difficult it is to acclimate to the clothing,” observes Raelle Myrick-Hodges. “And these are probably still made a little more comfortable than they were at the time! All the women have been wearing corsets and petticoats since the first day of rehearsal, and it’s torture. We have conversations about how they can’t bend at the waist like that to relieve their back. And they’re say, ‘But it hurts!’ and I say, ‘Yes! Aren’t you glad it’s 2017?’ The nature of the period clothing itself helps them in their movement; but we do have movement people on staff, who to make it more accurate.”

In addition to director Raelle Myrick-Hodges and PRC producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch, the PlayMakers Rep creative team for Intimate Apparel includes scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee, lighting designer Xavier Pierce, costume designer Bobbi Owen, sound designer Anna Warda Alex, voice coach Blake Segal, dramaturg Jacqueline E. Lawton, stage manager Hannah-Jean Farris, and assistant stage manager Charles K. Bayang.

Allison Altman (left) and Rasool Jahan star as Mrs. van Buren and Esther (photo by Jon Gardiner)
Allison Altman (left) and Rasool Jahan star as Mrs. van Buren and Esther (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges says, “What’s great about scenic designer Georgia Lee is that her aesthetic is minimal. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted a set designer who would allow the costume character to be the lead design character. These clothes are all handmade and beautiful and extraordinary and specific. Georgia and I were in agreement from the beginning that there was no need to flush a stage with this literal idea of period when you have such beautiful, elegant, period clothing.

“What we decided to do,” Myrick-Hodges says, “was look at the set as if it were the lens of a period, so it would to feel like it was a floating environment. We wanted to set it up so there was a sense of New York City was like, to actually make space for a contemporary conversation in an organic space, where the language didn’t have to be in presentation.”

Lighting designer Xavier Pierce adds, “This particular piece is kind of a heartbreaker. It’s about wanting something — wanting something so much that you give up your entire self to have it. And that’s about a person in love. In my own life, I’ve done that. I’ve tried to give up everything in the pursuit of love, I’ve had people who’ve given up everything in pursuit of love for me. To understand that heartbreak is paramount to trying to convey real life. And that’s what I try to bring to the table, my own experiences sort of leverage those emotions to what is happening in the room.

“Still,” says Pierce, “when the costume design is the main driver of the play creatively, the lighting is sort of just for clarity — to make sure we are able to see what’s happening, what’s past, what’s present, what’s here, what’s over there. So, the clearness and the purified way that I want to light the show is just to give voice to especially what Bobbi is doing and what Raelle is doing and what the characters are doing on stage.”

Costume designer Bobbi Owen says, “I would be the wrong person to design Ringling Bros. Circus. Those are ‘costumes,’ as we say in the business, with a capital K. They’re really over-spoken. What I do is ‘clothes.’ So, what I really worked hard to do was to find the kinds of clothing that the characters in this play would be wearing. And I found it chilling to do as much research into the Panama Canal as I did. Those photographs were just — it still sticks with me, all of what I saw of what was going on there. ‘Get me the hell outta Panama,’ is what I would be saying, too, if that were me there!”

“And then trying to find ways to speak to the period without doing museum fare. These are real actors who are going to be on stage how have to be able to breathe and crawl around on the floor and put clothes on and off and stand up and sit down and walk up flights of stairs, exactly the way all of us would’ve done if we lived in 1905. So, it’s trying to put myself back into that time,” Owen says.

Rasool Jahan (left) and Benjamin Curns star as Esther and Mr. Marks (photo by Jon Gardiner)
Rasool Jahan (left) and Benjamin Curns star as Esther and Mr. Marks (photo by Jon Gardiner)

“There are lots of things that I discovered while doing research that I would love to draw and hand to somebody to be able to make for me,” says Bobbi Owen, “but they wouldn’t serve the play. There are a few things I found were just perfect, but mostly what I found was a sleeve here and a collar there and an idea for a skirt shape there. So, what I drew, ultimately, was not of any one thing that I found someplace, but sort of my take on what it was. And we made some concessions for the play, because the really wealthy woman in the play only appears in intimate apparel. We never see her in a dress, a day dress or a ball dress or anything. So, we kind of miss what would’ve been the height of fashion at the time and had to think about Esther.

“If you look in 1905,” says Owen, “the sleeves come down, and they have a lot of fullness at the elbow, and they come down to a really narrow cuff. Well, if you’re sewing all the time, you can’t have all that fabric around you. All the sleeves in the play have long cuffs, so that you know they’re being worn by working people, and they wouldn’t actually get in the way. We’re careful to make sure those sleeves do what the play needs them to do. It’s using the research and the background as a means to serve the play, without have the play serve the research.”

Bobbi Owen adds, “It should look of another time, but it also should look of a piece with that time. I think the person who shows the most change over time is the character George, who comes from Panama, where we see him in really filthy work clothes — really sweaty work clothes. Then he has a suit that he’s traveling in to go to New York. It’s not his — it wasn’t made for him — but he’s wearing it with the right attitude to get him from one place to the other. And then a suit gets made for him; and he transforms for us, in terms of who he can be in terms of what he’s wearing.

“And that’s different with another character in the play, Mr. Marks, who is the textile merchant,” Owen says. “He wears the same thing through the entire play. You don’t want that sort of person to be changing clothes all the time. There’s a sort of comfort in him wearing exactly the same thing until the very last moment. But I won’t spoil that for you.”

Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges says, “This play is both love story and a story exploring race and social status. Esther’s story is complicated, because she has this fantasy relationship with a man she’s never met, but then she’s also been working in this racist and sexist system for a while. Ultimately, it’s about love of self [and] the struggle to move on as a black woman.”

Costume designer Bobbi Owen adds, “I hope you all leave the theater, after you’ve watched this play, admiring Esther even more for what she was able to accomplish, dressed the way she was dressed, raised in the society in which she was raised, and relegated to the work that she was working.”

Rasool Jahan (left) and Kathryn Hunter-Williams star as Esther and Mrs. Dickson (photo by Jon Gardiner)
Rasool Jahan (left) and Kathryn Hunter-Williams star as Esther and Mrs. Dickson (photo by Jon Gardiner)

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 25th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods:; Jan. 23rd Raleigh, NC preview by Jessica Patrick for “What’s on Tap”:; and Jan. 19th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Cliff Bellamy: (Note: You must subscribe to read this article).

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents INTIMATE APPAREL at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25-27 Previews, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 Opening Night, 2 p.m. Jan. 29, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31-Feb. 3, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4, 2 p.m. Feb. 5, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7-11, and 2 p.m. Feb. 12 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15-$48 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel, except $15 general admission ($10 for students with ID) on Community Night (Tuesday, Jan. 31st).

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY,, or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529),, or


PRESENTER:,,,, and

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage):



NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be a gala opening-night performance, starting at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28th.

NOTE 3: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 31st.

NOTE 4: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1st, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5th, performances.

NOTE 5: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 7th (for more information, click here).

NOTE 6: The North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussions on “The Hidden Worlds of Intimate Apparel,” led by Peter Buonaccorsi, MD, after the show’s 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12th, performances.


Intimate Apparel (2003 Baltimore and 2004 Off-Broadway play): (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

Lynn Nottage (Brooklyn, NY playwright): (official website), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).

The Script: (Google Books).

Study Guide: (courtesy Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis, MN).

Raelle Myrick-Hodges (director): (PlayMakers Rep bio), (Internet Movie Database), and (Facebook page).


Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).