KET Arts


Poof!

A TALK WITH THE PLAYWRIGHT:

LYNN NOTTAGE

Lynn Nottage

Recent plays by Playwright Lynn Nottage include: Por’knockers (1994); Crumbs from the Table of Joy (1998); Mud, River, Stone (1999); A Walk Through Time, a children’s musical (2000); Las Meninas (2000); and Intimate Apparel (2003). Her work has been produced Off-Broadway and at more than a dozen regional theaters across the country. Her short play, Poof! (1993), premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where it won the Heideman Award for ATL’s National Ten-Minute Play Contest. Other work has been nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the NAACP Award, and the Black Theatre Alliance Award. She received a Dreamworks/Amblin Entertainment playwriting commission and co-wrote the script for the feature film, Side Streets, produced in 1999 by Merchant Ivory and directed by Tony Gerber. Nottage is a graduate of Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. She was born in Brooklyn and still lives there.

“... for me the journey begins downstairs at the kitchen table ...”

INSPIRATIONS

Q: How did you begin writing?

LYNN NOTTAGE: I think a lot about the question of why I write. I think for me the journey begins 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. They were nurses, teachers; they were activists; they were artists. And I think that is where I got all of my inspiration as a writer.

Q: When did you know you were going to be a writer?

LYNN NOTTAGE: I don’t think I made a commitment to being a writer until I finished Poof! I had gone to graduate school, written plays in my journal since I was a teenager. I worked for a newspaper. But I don’t think until I put the last punctuation mark on the last sentence in Poof! that I decided that this is what I am going to do. I really like doing this. Somehow I can communicate things I am feeling, the issues that are of interest to me.

Q: What’s your educational background?

LYNN NOTTAGE: I grew up in Brooklyn and realized that was a narrow experience for me and kind of hungered for a broader New York City experience. And I found myself traveling on the A train, all the way up to Harlem, to the High School of Music and Art. From there I went on to Brown University, despite the fact that the guidance counselor told me that, as an African-American woman, it was probably not a great choice to go to a Ivy League school. She thought a state school would be more up my alley. And I said, “No, this is where I want to go.” At Brown I discovered I had an interest in writing. I was not sure if it would be playwriting or journalism or writing ad copy—but I somehow found my way to the Yale School of Drama. And that is where my journey as a playwright began.

Q: Is there anyone in particular that you look on as key influence?

LYNN NOTTAGE: I think one of the most inspirational figures in my life—certainly in my life as a theater artist—was a professor at Brown University named John Bass. What he taught me was the joy of ritual. He taught me that, through playwriting, we could discover our ancestors. We could explore issues. We could find our history.

“The play wrote itself ...”

THE PLAYS: POOF!

Q: When you wrote Poof!, you had not written for awhile …

NOTTAGE: Well, immediately after graduate school, I found myself hungering for a different thing. I had been in academia for—what? Twelve, fourteen years. I wanted to work in the real world and to work at Amnesty International as the national press officer. I sold my computer and committed to writing press releases, op-eds, and speeches for four years of my life.

Poof! was the first play that I had written in years. It came very quickly. I literally sat down at my computer and wrote it in one sitting. I sent it to Actors Theater in Louisville for their short play competition and suddenly found myself the winner of the Heideman Award. The play wrote itself, and it was a joy to rediscover this creativity that was inside of me.

It was produced at the Humana Festival. It was done very simply, with two actresses and a pile of ash. And it somehow captured the imagination of the audience. Subsequently it has been done literally all around the world. I have photographs of the production in Japan. I got a check for the German translation of the play. My agent called me once and said it had been translated into Welsh. I was shocked by the power of this story—that somehow women around the world are connecting with the issues and have found some resonance for their lives. Poof! has been done in Austria, in Japan, in Singapore. It’s been done in Mexico, in Spain. It’s been done in Wales.

Q: Why do you feel it’s struck such a chord?

LYNN NOTTAGE: I think it’s because it is dealing with something universal, which is abuse against women. I think that’s one of the things we continue to struggle with. We talk about the notion of human rights, but there is no one watching what’s going on in the household. There is no one who’s there to protect a woman from being abused. That is why I think it is important for us, as women, to discuss it—to put the issue out there. To discover that we have a voice. We have the power to say, “We will not tolerate this.” And I also think there is a role that the governments can play in this. Very often the police turn a blind eye—that when they get a domestic violence call, they think, “We won’t go this time. We will go the next time.” The next time is too late.

A good friend of mine was a victim of domestic abuse. One of things she said has stuck with me. She felt alone, embarrassed, trapped. As a result, she said nothing for years. I would encourage women who find themselves in that situation to find a close friend and discuss it. And if you do not have that friend, leave immediately.

“... beautiful, complicated, and it is home.”

MUD, RIVER, STONE

Mud, River, Stone

LYNN NOTTAGE: I discovered Mud, River, Stone in an article in The New York Times. It was about a group of demobilized soldiers in Mozambique. They had been fighting for ten years and suddenly found themselves at peace and with no money because they were never paid. To remedy the problem, they decide to kidnap and hold hostage everyone who comes to this small city. That includes truckers, vacationers, peddlers. It includes anyone who passes by. And when the UN comes in to negotiate, they take them as hostage as well.

For whatever reason, the story just made me laugh, for a long time. I tucked it away in a file and kept revisiting it over and over and thought, “This is a play. This is a play. And how do I write this play? I write this play from the point of view of an African-American couple taking their second honeymoon to Africa. They find themselves in Mozambique, captured by a demobilized soldier.” The play is really about my search for some sort of understanding of this place—where I have this genetic and emotional connection, but also this great distance. On one hand, I understand Africa, and on the other hand, I know absolutely nothing about it. So the play was an exploration of my relationship to the continent and to a country. In the end I think this African-American couple discovers that they are American and that they are African, and that they cannot separate those two things.

At the time I wrote Mud, River, Stone, I had never been to Africa. I was dealing with my own romanticized notion of the continent, trying to come to terms with those feelings—wanting very badly to go and not having the means to get there. So I went there through books and research and the writing of this play.

Many years later I went to Africa. I went to Senegal, which was absolutely spectacular. It was one of the most seminal experiences in my life. I wish that I had gone there sooner. You can’t explain—when you go to a place that lives in your imagination from the time you are two years old, and it is everything you imagine it to be. It’s beautiful, complicated, and it is home. My mother and my grandmother had made several trips to Africa. My mother went to the Women’s Conference in Kenya in the ‘90s. So it was a place that they had a spiritual and emotional connection to it. It took me until I was in my mid-30s to get there.

I most certainly will write more about Africa. I find when I have spare time I read nonfiction books about the Congo. I am fascinated by the Congo, fascinated by the politics of that region and the legacy of colonialism. By the brutality. I think some of that comes out of working at a place like Amnesty International—I studied the abuses of countries. The Congo was one of the most aggressive violators of human rights. And it is the center of Africa. It is the center of the rain forest.

“A volatile and rich period ...”

CRUMBS FOR THE TABLE OF JOY

LYNN NOTTAGE: Crumbs from the Table of Joy is about two teenaged girls who were transplanted from Florida to New York City by their father in the 1950s after the death of their mom. They find themselves living with a bon vivant aunt who is very much out of her time. She is a free-thinker, and at that period a free-thinker was assumed to be a Communist. So she is branded a Communist, even though she isn’t. She is just an independent, modern woman.

This rather ordinary African-American family—living in a basement apartment, living with this very strict and religious father and bon vivant aunt—is further complicated when the father disappears for three days and returns with a German bride. Back then it was unthinkable. You can imagine how an African-American family in the 1950s feels when they find themselves integrated. You can imagine how they would cope with something like that. The play is an allegory about the civil rights movement, about the women’s rights movement. It certainly foreshadows integration. It was written as an allegory for me to try to understand integration and the complications of integration and segregation and the complications of Communism and the complications of religion in one’s life.

I began writing Crumbs from the Table of Joy as an exercise to see if I could write a play for a multi-generational theater audience—that had resonance for teenagers, but for an older audience as well. At the time I was interested in the period of the 1950s. It was a moment in American history in which I felt so much change. It was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Music was going through this explosion. You had be-bop, rock ‘n’ roll—so much that was going on. Such a volatile and rich period. Yet everything I had seen was in black and white. And I wanted to make it colorful. So I started writing Crumbs from the Table of Joy to try to understand that era.

I learned that it is like the period we live in now. It is complicated. People’s lives were their lives, regardless of what was going on. I think that is what I was trying to capture—that all these things were going on outside the Crump family household. They still had to figure the same things, to figure out how to stay a happy family. And Crumbs from the Table of Joy is about a displaced Southern family smack in the center of New York City, in the 1950s, trying to cope with those changes. Coping with integration, trying to cope with big-city ideals with a small-town sensibility.

“You have to question and challenge.”

LAS MENINAS

LYNN NOTTAGE: I discovered Las Meninas in an essay about the African presence in royal families. There was one paragraph that mentioned the illicit romance between an African dwarf and the Queen Marie Thérèse of France. It peeked my imagination. I immediately ran to the library and spent close to eight years researching this play. I discovered it was true. In 1661, Queen Marie Thérèse of France, who was the wife of Louis XIV, had a romance with an African dwarf named Nabo. And that romance produced a child named Louise Marie, who was whisked from the palace and sent to a convent where she spent her entire life, first as a novice and then a nun. She did not take vows until she was much older.

What fascinated me about this story is that these people were part of the historic record, but over the course of the next 100 years they were very carefully erased. There is a Yoruba saying: “The same white man who made the pencil made the eraser.” I find that so many people from the African Diaspora find themselves marginalized by history. Completely erased from history. And part of my mission as a writer is to sort of resurrect some of these figures. Not only were we there, but we played a vital role in the shaping of the culture that we live in today, whether you want to call it “western culture,” or… I like to think of it as “world culture,” because America is no longer Western culture. It reflects people from around the world.

Q: What was the reaction to Las Meninas?

LYNN NOTTAGE: Well, it is a very funny play, at least in my opinion. I think the reaction to the play is mixed. It has taken me ten years to get the play produced, and I don’t know why. When people read it they are delighted. And ultimately, when it was presented at San Jose Rep, the audience responded wonderfully. I think there was also fear in part of the audience because of the taboo of the subject matter, because I was dealing with history that is not familiar. Because I was challenging the French royal court.

One of my intentions as I sat down and wrote Las Meninas was for the audience to always feel they could challenge the historic record. That you should be curious and distrust what one tells you because there is always another version. Another story exists, and that is what researching Las Meninas taught me as a writer. You have to be curious. You have to question and challenge. And you have to be diligent with stories that interest you and the things that you feel passion about, and at times people don’t want to see that they are there. As an African-American writer, that is why I am here—to track down those stories. That I have this voice. That it is the voice of my grandmother and the voice of my mother. And a voice that belongs in the center of America because it’s part of the American story. It is part of who we are.

I think that the artistic director was very brave for producing Las Meninas. It is always a struggle as an African-American writer to find a home. I mean, there is a reluctance to produce our work because it is unfamiliar. So there is a Catch-22. Our stories are not familiar because they won’t be produced; our stories won’t ever become familiar if we can’t be produced. It’s an ongoing struggle.

“There are things that work beautifully on a page as literature, but have no dramatic life.”

INTIMATE APPAREL

LYNN NOTTAGE: Intimate Apparel is a deceptively simple play about a seamstress at the turn of the century who sews intimate apparel for prostitutes and ladies on Fifth Avenue. It’s an exploration of race and class in America. And desire and hope.

Q: Is this a family story?

LYNN NOTTAGE: It is, and it isn’t. I had a great-grandmother who was a very talented seamstress. She specialized in creating intimate apparel for ladies. I was always fascinated by that—this very religious women creating kinky lingerie. The story is simple. Begins with a woman, Esther, who sews intimate apparel. She connects with many people in her life, but has no intimacy. She very much wants to touch someone. And I don’t mean physically. I mean emotionally and spiritually. And she finds it in this person named George Armstrong, a laborer in the Panama Canal who is very lonely. They begin corresponding. Neither of them reads or writes, so they go outside themselves to help create illusions of who they are, to connect.

Q: What is the process by which something you write becomes something that works onstage?

LYNN NOTTAGE: A play exists as a literary form until the first moment you sit down in a rehearsal room and allow a group of actors to read it. Then it becomes a dramatic form. During the rehearsal process, you make discoveries because there are things that work beautifully on a page as literature, but have no dramatic life.

In the case of my play Intimate Apparel, I had spent about a year and a half at the New York Public Library researching the play, trying to discover the textures of 1905 and to be true to that. And in that process of writing, I tried to capture as much of the essence of the time as possible. I discovered a lot of that historical data was not necessary. Just through the writing and the way the characters interacted, the period came through. And that is something I could not have known just reading the play on the page. It is something that I discovered once those words were interpreted through an actor.

Intimate Apparel premiered at Central Stage in Baltimore in February, 2003. It is rare to find a theater that gives you a grant, then once you finish, they are committed to produce the play. I find it so often as an African-American woman writer. Theaters give you a commission by way of raising grant money for themselves without the intention of ever producing your play. So you find yourself trapped in this “Development Hell.” You are trapped with these plays that never get produced. So it is good, finally, moving through that and getting a production.

A VOICE TO BE RECKONED WITH

Q: Why is it important to hear the voices of African-American women writers?

LYNN NOTTAGE: I think that the African-American woman’s voice is important because it is part of the American voice. But you would not know that by looking at TV or films. You would think that we do not exist. And part of my mission as a writer is to say, “I do exist. My mother existed, and my grandmother existed, and my great-grandmother existed, and they had stories that are rich, complicated, funny, that are beautiful and essential." And the stories have become the myth of America. There are folk tales brought over from Africa that find, many years later, they are on television as Bugs Bunny. I want people to know that my story, that of the African-American woman, is also the American story.

Q: What lies down the road?

LYNN NOTTAGE: That is such a complicated question. Just when I am feeling optimistic about the future of the African-American writer, I look at the theater season and see we are not present. But I hope that we will be embraced. I think we will be embraced when people begin demanding to hear the work. People are not demanding the work because they don’t know that it is there. We are here and present and writing wonderful stories. We have this unique voice, and we have these stories that have not been told.