Asolo Rep's Intimate Apparel Wears Well

Lynn Nottage's play about a Black seamstress striving to find love touches the heart.

By Kay Kipling March 4, 2024

Aneisa J. Hicks and Sasha Andreev in Asolo Rep's "Intimate Apparel."

Image: Kayla Erny

Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, now onstage at Asolo Rep, is as revealing as its title suggests. It gets inside the souls of its characters, while at the same time providing glimpses of how important it can be to them (or to us) to wear what we think represents our selves.

The story for the play is inspired by Nottage’s own family history; specifically, by her great-grandmother’s life as a Black seamstress more than a century ago. Here, her ancestor is transformed into Esther Mills (Aneisa J. Hicks), who left her North Carolina home while still in her teens and made an independent life for herself in 1905 New York City. She’s strong, talented, and has a circle of clients/friends, ranging from an upper-class white matron (Adelin Phelps) to a Black sex worker (Trezure B. Coles) to her boarding house landlady (Regina Marie Williams) to the Jewish merchant (Sasha Andreev) from whom she purchases her fabrics.

What she doesn’t have, and longs for as she turns 35, is love, a husband, home and family. So when a church connection leads to receiving letters from a Barbadian man (Curtis Bannister) she’s never met, she’s willing to open her heart to the possibilities.

Curtis Bannister and Aneisa J. Hicks in "Intimate Apparel."

Image: Kayla Erny

As to whether or not they will be happy together, you’ll have to wait until Act II to find out. But leading up to that moment are Nottage’s portrayals of people we can recognize and sympathize with.

First and foremost is Hicks’ Esther; we’re on her side from the beginning, as she faces her life and a world of barriers as a Black woman without self-pity. Hicks brings us willingly along on her journey of hope, and she’s not the only one onstage who engages us. We sense that white matron’s loneliness through her silly laugh; we feel for that sex worker even as she tries to harden herself and us; we see the bind that the Jewish merchant’s religion places him in, obliged to commit himself to a faraway fiancée he’s never met, either.

Trezure B. Coles and Hicks

Image: Kayla Erny

We also get some hard-won wisdom from Williams’ landlady, who did not marry for love. And despite his frequently bad behavior, we can even see the struggle George, Esther’s possible husband, faces once he arrives in New York City trying to make a new life against the odds.

The production, directed by Austene Van, is of a piece with Nottage’s writing. The play opens with sounds of the era featuring ragtime music, and a large oval title image center stage. Each scene is preceded by a title card of sorts referring to a piece of apparel, from corset to suit to smoking jacket. And both the costumes (by Mathew J. Lefebvre) and the unsewn pieces of fabric handled by the actors feel sensual, beautiful, embodying the longings of those wear or will eventually wear them.

The excellent cast works well together under Van's direction, and it's good to find plenty of humor as well as pathos in Nottage's play, which leaves us with some hope for the future despite the difficulties that exist for Esther. Try it on for size.

Intimate Apparel continues through April 18; for tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or visit

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