Nottage, Lynn 1964–
Lynn Nottage 1964–
MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient Lynn Nottage has ascended in her profession to become one of the most popular playwrights in the United States. Nottage's plays, which are noted for their depth of research and their capacity for bringing characters alive in a specific time and place, differ widely from one another as the playwright has consistently explored new settings and techniques. “There is no such thing as one Lynn Nottage voice in all of her plays,” director Daniel Sullivan told Jason Zinoman of the New York Times. Instead, the theater world came to know a playwright who was constantly challenging herself and growing.
Nottage was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1964 and has continued to make Brooklyn her home. Her journey toward becoming a writer, she told Kentucky Educational Television (KET), began “downstairs at the kitchen table of my house. Down there was a gathering place for so many women. To come home from school, and my grandmother would be sitting at the table, and my mother would be sitting at the table. The woman from across the street would be sitting at the table. And they all had stories to tell.” Nottage began writing plays in her personal journal, and she realized she wanted to seek out the best education she could obtain.
Traveled on Subway to Selective High School
As a result, she took a long daily subway ride to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem (now part of LaGuardia High School) and then, despite discouraging words from her guidance counselor, applied to Brown University in Rhode Island and was accepted. At Brown, she thought about a journalism career but was inspired by Professor John Bass, who, she told KET, “taught me that, through playwriting, we could discover our ancestors. We could explore issues. We could find our history.” After graduating from Brown in 1986, Nottage went on to the Yale School of Drama, where she earned an MFA in 1989. At that point, Nottage was tired of the university environment, so she took a job as national press officer with Amnesty International. For four years she wrote press releases and newspaper editorials, and the experience kindled what would be a long-lasting interest in the continent of Africa.
But her playwriting impulse was only dormant, not dead. When she sat down to write a new play, in 1993, it came pouring out of her. Poof! was a one-act play that addressed the issue of domestic abuse, built around the memorable image of a woman whose husband spontaneously explodes and disappears. “I literally sat down at my computer and wrote it in one sitting,” Nottage told KET. She sent the play to the Actors Theater in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the top independent theaters in the United States; produced there in 1993, it won the company's Heideman Award and drew the attention of critics nationwide.
Winning a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 1994, Nottage set to work on several full-length plays. She achieved another major production in 1996 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which mounted her play Crumbs From the Table of Joy. That play, set in the 1950s in New York, dealt with an African-American family that experiences instant integration when the father marries a German woman who may have survived a Nazi concentration camp. Por'knockers (1995) dealt with the theme of African-American activism. The play, veering between comedy and tragedy, depicts a group of revolutionaries whose plan to set fire to a government office building goes seriously wrong, and it juxtaposes their story with that of a Guyanese gold miner, the original “por'knocker” of the title.
Used Hostage Situation as Setting
Nottage's Mud, River, Stone (1997) also contained both comic and serious elements in its story of a middle-class African-American couple who becomes lost in Africa and is held hostage by a former bellhop at a hotel in the jungle. In the late 1990s Nottage took several years off, except for writing A Walk Through Time, a children's musical, in 2000. She married Tony Gerber, a filmmaker, and the couple had a daughter, Ruby. But once again, the hiatus in Nottage's playwriting activity propelled her to a new stage in her career.
That new stage involved a decision on Nottage's part to start thinking about her own family history—a decision motivated partly by the loss of her mother and the growth of a family of her own. “I feel like a different writer. I can't tell you how I've changed, but motherhood has changed the way in which I view the world,” she told Randy Gener of American Theatre. Nottage was also involved in research for her next plays, and she became known as a writer who explored the worlds of her characters down to the last detail. She spent days at the main New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. “My research goal when writing a new play is to get to all the rooms [in the library]—the photography room, the early New York room, the main reading room. It's a wonderfully seductive place and I never tire of exploring it. I've found many of my characters in that building,” she told Roundabout Theatre Company's John Istel.
The fruits of her research time showed in her next play, Las Meninas (2002). The play treated a romance, long mostly erased from the historical record, between Marie-Thérèse, wife of King Louis XIV of France, and an African dwarf who had been brought to the French Court. “I consider myself probably THE foremost expert in the world on the relationship between Queen Marie-Therese and Nabo, the court's African dwarf,” Nottage told Istel.
Drew on Family History
Extensive research also played a part in the play that became probably Nottage's best known: Intimate Apparel (2003), which was the most frequently produced play in the United States during the 2005-06 season. Set in New York in 1905, the play tells the story of a black seamstress named Esther who makes lingerie for a variety of clients ranging from high-society women to prostitutes and becomes involved with their lives even as her own relationships with men develop. The play required a great deal of period detail but also drew on Nottage's own family past: her great-grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Barbados, was also a maker of lingerie, and the play involves a subplot in which Esther receives letters from a Barbadian laborer.
Nottage returned in 2004 with Fabulation, which was written at the same time as Intimate Apparel and billed as a companion piece. It was very different in content, however, dealing with a successful African-American woman named Undine who goes into a downward spiral and rediscovers her roots. “For Fabulation, I tried to imagine Esther 100 years later, after she's enjoyed the benefits of the women's rights and civil rights movements and become a fully empowered African-American woman, like Condoleezza Rice—and that was Undine,” Nottage explained to Gener. “Esther's journey is about becoming empowered, whereas Undine feels completely empowered, so I imagined the opposite journey for her.”
At a Glance …
Career: Amnesty International, National Press Officer, 1989-93; one-act play Poof! produced at Actors Theater, Louisville, KY, 1993; six full-length plays produced, 1993-2005.
Selected awards: New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships, 1994, 2000; New York Drama Critics‧ Circle Best Play Award, 2004; National Black Theatre Festival, August Wilson Playwriting Award, 2005; Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, 2005; Obie Award for Playwriting, 2005; MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 2007.
In 2005 Nottage realized a long-held dream when she traveled to Africa, which both her mother and grandmother had previously visited. Nottage and her husband went to Senegal and Gambia, traveling by bus through the countryside. As of 2007, she was planning a new play, Ruined, about African women's experiences. In the fall of 2007 she added to her long list of awards and fellowships a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship of $500,000—a so-called “genius grant” that would enable her to broaden her horizons still further. “In her plays, as in her life,” Gener observed, “Lynn Nottage is an intrepid traveler.”
Crumbs From the Table of Joy, 1996.
Mud, River, Stone, 1997.
A Walk Through Time (children's musical), 2000.
Las Meninas, 2002.
Intimate Apparel, 2003.
American Theatre, November 1995, p. 10.
Hartford Courant, September 25, 2007.
New York Times, June 13, 2004; June 14, 2004.
New Yorker, April 19, 2004, p. 196.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 16, 2005.
Gener, Randy, “Conjurer of Worlds,” American Theatre,http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/Oct05/nottage.cfm (accessed January 4, 2008).
Istel, John, “Perfect Fit,” Roundabout Theatre Company,http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/fc/spring04/nottage.htm (accessed January 4, 2008).
Lynn Nottage,http://www.lynnnottage.com/index.html (accessed January 4, 2008).
“Lynn Nottage,” Biography Resource Center,http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (accessed January 4, 2008).
“Lynn Nottage,” MacArthur Foundation,http://www.macfound.org/site/c.lkLXJ8MQKrH/b.2913817/k.3EC5/2007_Overview.htm (accessed January 4, 2008).
“A Talk With the Playwright: Lynn Nottage,” Kentucky Educational Television: American Shorts,http://www.ket.org/americanshorts/poof/nottage.htm (accessed January 4, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
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