Lynn Nottage
Lynn Nottage

Black History Month Spotlight: Lynn Nottage on Firsts and Storytelling

Lynn Nottage has been hard at work breaking glass ceilings. The Brooklyn, New York–born playwright recently shattered records as the first and only woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, and this year she saw three new theater works run simultaneously on NYC stages. From MJ: The Musical, a new bio-musical currently running at the Neil Simon Theatre, to Clyde’s, a new drama produced by Second Stage, and a new opera, Intimate Apparel, open now at Lincoln Center Theater, Nottage has been running a marathon with just her pen. “I’ve been likening it to being an Ironman or Ironwoman athlete. This is the triathlon of theater: It’s a play, a musical, and an opera,” Nottage says.

In 2017, Nottage was awarded her second Pulitzer, for her play Sweat — her first work to be produced on Broadway. She received her first in 2009 for Ruined, which was produced Off-Broadway. She joins a small elite group of multiple Pulitzer-winning American playwrights that includes August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Robert E. Sherwood, and Thornton Wilder. Broadway Direct caught up with the playwright to discuss firsts, what stories make her say “yes,” and the ones she has yet to tell.

Within the past year, you’ve conquered so many firsts, including becoming the first woman to hold two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. How does that make you feel?

How is it possible that I’m the first? It feels like there are so many other women who I’ve looked up to, who I feel should have had this honor long before me. And then, of course, I feel very proud that I can be in the position that I’m in in this moment in time, to be representing Black women.

You’re also the first to have three shows in NYC to run at the same time.

I do feel this incredible sense of accomplishment.

On social media, theater fans are discussing the “Lynn trifecta.” What was most challenging: writing the book for a musical, an opera, or a play?

I think that they’re all challenging in different ways. Certainly, I’ve been playwriting for many years, and that’s my comfort zone. Writing a mega musical like [MJ] is daunting, and was definitely a very different journey for me and had challenges, some that were unexpected and some that are just baked into wrestling this medium. Writing a musical is immensely collaborative. You’re working from the director, from the very inception of the piece. And so, you’re in dialogue with someone in ways that you aren’t when you’re writing a play, because usually I write the play and then it’s when I’m talking about going into rehearsal that I first begin having very robust conversations with the director. That was different for me. And opera was also exercising a completely different muscle, writing this. I was a neophyte to writing librettos, and so I had to lean very heavily on my composer to be my guide through the medium. I was very fortunate to have Ricky Ian Gordon, who was patient and loving and gentle and nurturing, help me figure out how to write a libretto.

Can you talk me through the development process of your first opera, Intimate Apparel?

I wrote the play after my mother died and my grandmother developed senile dementia. My mother had Lou Gehrig’s disease, so she slowly lost the ability to speak. And my grandmother, also because of the dementia, lost her ability to communicate. They were the two last elders in my immediate family, and that loss really hit me profoundly. While I was clearing my grandmother out of her home to go live with my brother, I found this Family Circle magazine and tucked in it with an image of my grandmother when she was a child with this other woman, who was her mother, and her sister. I realized that I had never seen that woman before, and I knew nothing about her, and there was no one left in my family who could share her narrative. It just got me thinking a lot about how we as Black women were absented from the narrative, and how in some ways we were complicit, because we never — like my parents, my mother, and my grandmother never felt that my great-grandmother’s life was important enough to share stories. Intimate Apparel in many ways was a reclamation project. I spent a lot of time trying to re-create the life of an extraordinary ordinary woman, like my grandmother, who became Esther, who was beloved but didn’t really understand the many ways in which she was loved, because she didn’t fundamentally love herself.

There’s a collective theme through your productions this season. It seems you purposefully focus on the strength of characters who could easily be seen as broken.

What ties those three stories is that they’re all about artists who have chosen different mediums to express themselves, and who are really discovering who they are through the process of making their art. It was certainly true with MJ. At some point, the woman who is interviewing him says, “It’s a mixtape of your life.” And he says, “Yeah, that’s right.” And that’s what I see: The assembly of the songs is really the emotional journey of MJ. And I think it’s certainly true with Clyde’s, in which you have a group of people who discover themselves through the process of assembling all these complicated ingredients to make a sandwich, artisanal sandwiches, which are really representative of the different elements of self. And Esther [in Intimate Apparel], who’s a seamstress, who really expresses herself through her creations, which are corsets, and the fabrics that she selects, all of what you’re beautiful in their own right.

What stories are you connected to the most, the ones that move you to say, “Yes, I will write this”?

I come to stories in many different ways. Sometimes it’s a question that’s nagging at me that I feel like I need to find the answer to, which was the case when I was writing Ruined. Sometimes it’s a character who’s following me around and won’t leave me alone until I put them on the page. I think that my entry into a play is very different depending what the themes and who those characters are. With regard to what I write about, I’m a Black woman. I’ve always been very deeply invested in centering our voices. I think a lot about why I write, and I write because the first places in which I encountered drama were at my mother’s kitchen table, and listening to the stories of my grandmother and my mother’s friends, and Black women were always at the center of those stories. I think that my writing is the extension of a conversation that I began when I was a child with the women in my family and the women in my mother’s circle.

Which show from this season did you have the most fun creating?

I had immense fun creating all of these shows. I think that, because of COVID, we returned to theater with a reborn enthusiasm because we had been so disconnected from our art for a year and a half, and feeling somewhat broken because what we do was the last thing to return. When we got into the rehearsal rooms, I just think people were so thankful. We were just so overjoyed to be within a community that, each room was special. I can say that each company, from MJ: The Musical to Clyde’s to Intimate Apparel, was the most special group of people I’ve ever made theater with, and that is not hyperbole. We were just so glad to be in each other’s company and making something.

Is there a story you haven’t told that you would want to tell in the future?

Oh, there are hundreds of stories.

Maybe one influenced by your hometown of Brooklyn?

My very first professional play, which was Crumbs From the Table of Joy, is about Brooklyn, and Fabulation is also about someone who leaves Brooklyn, who goes back. But I do feel that there’s so much more to explore there. I do think that when I sit back down, that there are stories that I want to tell that are closer to home.