Lynn Nottage

Lynn Nottage on Finding Inspiration and the Future of Theater

Lynn Nottage is optimistic about theater and what it will look like post-pandemic. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright interviewed with me two days before the Broadway League announced that Broadway closures would extend to June 2021. “We may be underwater a year from now,” Nottage said of her precariousness in the current state of theatre. She has, however, evolved from the pain she initially felt when Broadway announced closings back in March. “I certainly moved through different stages. I’ve gone from grief to despair, to acceptance,” Nottage explained. “I really struggled with what to write and how to write, and why to write.”

Before theatre closures, Nottage was prepping for the opening of Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center Theater, a new opera with music by Ricky Ian Gordon, based on her critically acclaimed play of the same name. Additionally, she was preparing for Broadway previews of MJ, a jukebox bio-musical about Michael Jackson, in which she is the book writer. Now during a forced respite, she discusses where she finds inspiration, her passion for telling diverse stories, and what the future of theater looks like for her.

You live in the same Brooklyn brownstone you grew up in. How has your home served as an inspiration for your work?

I moved back to Brooklyn in 1997 when my mother was dying. My intent was to move here for her and return to my life in Manhattan. However, something really wonderful happened when I moved. All of that beautiful energy that you have in the space that is holding your ancestors took over, and [my family] ended up staying. One of the beautiful things about my home is, my parents were avid art collectors. They were very interested in mid-century African-American art. If you come into our living room, it’s like just about every single wall space is filled with art. As a creator, as a theater-maker, I find it incredibly inspiring to sit down in the living room when I’m feeling blocked, look at the images, and have them speak to me. I’ve been in this house now for however many years, and still, when I go into the living room, I discover something different.

Before the shutdown, you were preparing for the opening of Intimate Apparel, a play inspired by your great-grandmother. Can you talk a little about the show?

When my mother died, I realized that I hadn’t asked a lot of questions about my ancestors, in particular, the women who shaped the other women in my life. Intimate Apparel was really my quest to try and delve deeper into my personal ancestry through the creation of a character who might have been like my great grandmother.

My great-grandmother came to New York from the Caribbean at the turn of the century by herself. She is one of eight sisters, and she worked incredibly hard as a domestic and a seamstress to bring each and every one of her sisters over. Intimate Apparel also was an exploration of this period in which many African-Americans moved to the city from the south, and were trying to forge a life in a modern city, in a lifestyle that didn’t necessarily embrace them in the way that they anticipated when they came.

You were also preparing for Broadway previews of MJ: The Musical. How did you become a part of that show?

The musical has been in development for years. I was approached by producers who said, “Would you be interested in writing MJ: The Musical?” I grew up listening to the Jackson 5. It’s like, my very first album was ABC. One of my absolute favorite albums in the world was Off the Wall, which was transformational for me. And then, you know, to “Thriller” and “Bad.” And so, the invitation to engage with Michael Jackson in some way was immensely exciting.

Your plays are diverse in story-telling, but most of them bring the issues of women of color to the forefront. Why are telling these specific stories so important to you?

I’m deeply invested in telling the stories of women who look like me and of women who were like my mother and my grandmother—woman who had these rich, complicated lives that were never really celebrated on the stage. I think it’s really important to bring those stories into the light. My mother was this remarkable woman who when she died, a thousand people showed up to her funeral at the church. It was overflowing, and I thought, “Oh my God, who are all these people?” I realized that I didn’t even know her full story. And there are thousands and thousands of Black women like her out there who have these stories that have not fully been explored on the stage or on screen. And so, I’m trying to do my tiny part in bringing light to those particular narratives.

We’re watching performance art institutions rethink how they are incorporating, or have not incorporated, diversity and inclusion. As a playwright of color, what are some of the challenges you might have faced, or continue to face, in your career?

Earlier on when I was trying to penetrate this business, there was a real reluctance to invite the stories that I wanted to tell on stage. I was repeatedly told that people would not be interested in the narratives that I was shaping, unless in some way, they centered whiteness. I can remember the first time I was told by an artistic director or by a literary manager, “Oh this is great but I have no access into this play. We need a character that helps me navigate this play.” And it was said often that you’d begin to feel like, well, is there something wrong with the way in which I’m telling this story? And one of the great things about this moment, and even before, is that there is finally the critical mass of people of color who can really push back against some of the anti-blackness and the racist practices that have been embedded in the theater over the years.

We’re slowly seeing some of these big theater institutions, and even small, awaken to the fact that they haven’t been as inclusive in the way in which they’ve invited not only the artists over the threshold, but administrators and the audiences over the threshold into their spaces. And so, hopefully, when we return to theater in a year from now, it’s going to look very different from the theater that we left.

You’ve won Pulitzers, to the most recent Brooklyn Book Fair Best of Brooklyn. Are there awards that mean more to you than the others?

I’m someone who’s always a little self-conscious when I talk about accolades because there’s a part of me that’s still in shock that I’m receiving this recognition. Like many people, I feel like they’re going to find out that I’m not that person. But strangely I think the very first award that I got — I received White Bird Productions’ Best Environmental Award when I was a young struggling playwright, and at a time where no one would read or produce my plays. This tiny theater company gave me this award for a play that I had written called Brooklyn After the Glow. In many ways, that was just the validation and inspiration I needed, to forge forward in this business. It was the award that came at the exact moment when it was necessary for my ego, in order to push me forward.

The other award that was also really important for me was the MacArthur Fellowship. That award also came at a key moment in my life. At the time I found out I was on the telephone with Katori Hall, who I was mentoring at the time. She said to me, “What are you doing?” I looked at my calendar for my next year, and I said, “I have nothing planned.” I really didn’t know how I was going to make a living. At the time I was sort of piecing together a living from adjunct teaching, which paid barely a sustainable existence. And during that call, I received another call [from the MacArthur Foundation] and had to click over from Katori, and they told me I would receive the award. It was like, God has heard me say I’m in trouble. The gift of that award allowed me to really take the time that I needed to nurture my craft and spend it writing, without the prevailing anxiety that I think hangs over many of us artists. It can be, at times, the fuel that we need to push us forward. But a lot of times, it can be disruptive energy that keeps us from really investing fully in our practice.

What do you think the future of theater looks like?

It’s impossible to say what the future of theater looks like because I think that when we return, we’ll then will have to recover from the fact that so many of us have been out of work and struggling. People are going to have to heal. And I don’t know how that healing process is going to impact what we see and what shape theater takes. I feel in some ways, it’s impossible to know. I am very optimistic that there’s going to be a real hunger on the part of audiences to get back into theaters. People are going to want work that is healing, that is entertaining, and that somehow, speaks to what they have been through.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.