Lynn NottageLynn Nottage is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, professor, and screenwriter, whose plays have been produced and widely acclaimed both nationally and internationally. Nottage is recognized as the first and only woman playwright to have won the Pulitzer Prize twice for a Drama. In addition, she has gone on to win countless other awards and fellowships further distinguishing her as a major playwright. Nottage is often described by critics as “an original voice in American theater. A playwright whose entertaining and thought-provoking works address contemporary issues with empathy and humor. Her ambitious, expressive early works…reveal Nottage’s rich poetic imagination, as she portrays periods of American history from unexpected vantage points and crafts complex characters of a kind that have garnered little notice among other writers and historians. Her more recent works…are considered to be her most accomplished thus far and represent major artistic achievements…Nottage’s imaginative exploration of history, her ability to find resonance in unexpected moments in the past, and her sensitive evocation of social concerns, have made her a powerful voice in theater. She is a dramatist, who will continue to provide us with provocative plays in which her characters confront some of society’s most complex issues” (MacArthur).Nottage is known for her powerful voice and distinct approach. “She has developed a body of work that is timely and uniquely her own. Nottage’s work is unapologetically bold and reflective of the diversity of her world. She is funny and serious, quirky and thoughtful, and both brilliant and intentional” (Wakefield).Looking back at Nottage’s upbringing, set in Brooklyn, New York, one is able to trace where her initial spark for research and story-telling began. Heavily influenced by her own family’s history, Nottage commented on her mother’s declining health, “One of the things that happened to her was she lost her ability to talk. I became hyperaware of the fact that I couldn’t ask her any questions. She was relatively young. I thought, “Oh my god, there are all these questions about my ancestors that we never got to ask you.” You always think you have more time. At the same moment that my mother lost her voice, my grandmother began to develop dementia and couldn’t answer those questions. In one fell swoop, I had lost everyone in my family who could tell me about my history. That made me very sad” (Jung). Perhaps, it was this curiosity and contemplation towards the untold stories of her family, coupled with her love of storytelling, which led her down a two-decade long career of sharing the stories of those that are often unheard and unseen historically. When questioned on what drives her work, Nottage described, “I look back at history — particularly the history of the United States — and for so long I saw these huge empty spaces in which I know my narrative existed. I think that you talk about reclamation. It’s one of the things where I want to reclaim my own history as part of American history and assert my presence. I know that my ancestors were there, and I know that my ancestors were instrumental in constructing what we consider to be the American narrative, but somehow those chapters are missing. I feel that as a literary person and as a playwright I’m hoping to write some of those chapters.” (Jung)Nottage has been able to create and share compelling stories around those who are historically left behind, overlooked and labeled as invisible, every day, or ordinary. She has created rich art with purpose and intrigue, while establishing a sometimes unexpected audience for these untold stories. Nottage’s work has ensured that these stories have a place at the theater in her brilliantly creative and refreshing approach to playwriting. Sharing in an interview, “I’m interested in the notion of working and how that is in some ways very connected to our identity, and that a large swath of the country makes their living by their hands. Those are not stories that you often get to see on the stage, at least not in New York City. A lot of the stories that you see on the stage are about the people making policy or the people who have discovered something incredible. Very rarely do you see the trials and tribulations of the people who do very simple tasks who have these beautiful stories. I think that’s why I gravitate towards working people. It’s also because I come from a long tradition of working people. Both of my grandmothers had at some point worked as domestics. My one grandmother eventually in her 50s got her nursing license and became a nurse at Harlem Hospital. My other grandmother, I got to see her graduate from college. The way in which they survived was as domestics. My grandfather was a Pullman porter and my father put his way through college by cleaning floors at night in the libraries. I understand that working people are in some way the bedrock of my existence and the existence of many people here.” (Jung)Nottage’s work stands out from her peers, in that she has shown creative genius in bringing to life what many critics might at first consider to be repurposed stories. But at closer inspection, one may then see that the heart of her stories is about what lies beneath the surface. The intricacies weaved into each character and what they represent, on a larger community scale, within the history of the collective are both timeless and relevant. “The state of the nation play has a long tradition in Britain, where playwrights are encouraged to think of the theater as a public forum, a place to debate the issues of the day and track the shifts in the collective narrative. The genre, of course, has an American pedigree too. Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner have written urgent political dramas that have advanced our national dialogue. But for too long, our dramatists have been more preoccupied with family affairs and identity crises than economic realities and race relations. “Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama set in a faltering factory town in Pennsylvania, magnificently answers the call for more far-ranging American playwriting. Although much of the action takes place in 2000, the play, which opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum, offers one of the most insightful explorations of the economic insecurity that has been fueling the political fury and racial tensions now engulfing us” (McNulty).Tales of oppression, injustices, rape, of economic hardships, and consumerism and exploitation, have made their way into Nottage’s writing and plays. An approach to writing these stories that allows the audience to consider the deeper implications of what’s unfolding within the lives of these characters and within the collective as a whole. How might we connect these stories to the happenings with our own country, past and present? How might we connect the values and conditions that have created the basis for these stories? When describing a scene out of the play “Mlima’s Tale,” Nottage said that the names of the elephants were purposefully included in different African languages. “The scene is intended, Nottage explained, to have the resonance of the Middle Passage, the stage of the slave trade in which millions of Africans were shipped to the New World. “It’s not just about the exploitation of African ivory,” she told me. “It’s also minerals, animals, and even people. That exploitation continues” (Canby).Nottage provides the audience with an opportunity to bring critical thinking to not only the story being told, but the history of the story being told. The stories also provide enough space for examining what might be at play beyond the context of the tale. Without force-feeding or overtly asking audiences to dig deeper, Nottage is providing the backdrop for education, empathy, and connection as it relates to the collective. “Sweat,” which had its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, shows how difficult it is to separate economics and race in an America in which the middle class is becoming a dwindling reality. Nottage, who did extensive on-the-ground research for the play, humanizes the discussion that has only become more vitriolic since Donald Trump was elected president” (McNulty).Being able to draw these connections to our history, as well as our present in the current political climate, also provides an opportunity for the audience to consider the ills of society and how they may be affecting those beyond our immediate circles. Telling these stories permits the audience to hear the tales of those we might not encounter in our everyday lives. What might be have in common? What might be find in our differences? What do our values as Americans tell us about ourselves? What role do those values play even in the happenings beyond our country? Nottage has been able to bring these questions to life through her characters. When questioned on what the possible takeaway might be from Sweat, Nottage shared, “I want the audience, when they leave, to think of the characters on the stage in three dimensions. I want them to have empathy. I also want them to think about engaging more with where we are culturally” (Brown).As we unpack the full scope of Nottage’s works, it would be remiss not to pause to consider her experience as a Black woman of color in theater. It most certainly has shaped not only her lens as a writer, but her place as a playwright amongst her peers and their critiques of her work. “Nottage’s work is deeply informed by issues of social justice, whether it be the plight of factory workers unceremoniously shut out from much-needed jobs or advocating for working playwright parents like herself, struggling to find the space they need to create. Across American theatres over the past three seasons, only 12% of plays were written by black playwrights, and the latest season of Broadway plays feature no plays, old or new, by black or female writers” (Ellis-Peterson).As a Black woman, in a predominantly white world, Nottage has broken the molds within theater and created a uniquely fluid portfolio of works. She did not benefit from having other Black women pave the way for her when she began her career. She essentially set on her own path and came to this career by showing up with the truths she felt deserved to be told. “So often, at least in my 50-some-odd years of being on this Earth, the world has been reflected through the gaze of a white man, and I think it’s really important to have different points of view,” Nottage told American Theatre by phone after the announcement. “I’m glad that I can represent that and I’m glad that I can represent it on a big stage, and hopefully I’m making space for others. I’m sticking my foot in the doorway to let others get through” (American Theatre Editors).While Nottage acknowledges the influence her upbringing has had on her along with her identification as a Black woman in America, she is also cautious of allowing that label to limit her and the focus of her works. While it is important for her to bring the histories of those who often go unmentioned to life, it is also her hope to someday have the freedom that her white counterparts enjoy. Their work isn’t continually marked as needing to be social justice-lensed in the same way that a person of color is expected to uphold the torch, and oftentimes, burden, of telling the stories of the oppressed. While she does prefer to take on stories that speak to our collective experiences, it is with the understanding that she dos so by choice and not by the pressures of necessity. “As a black playwright, I don’t feel that I necessarily have to address those issues,” she explains. “But as the playwright who I am, I feel that I do. I don’t feel that necessarily all black playwrights need to take on different social and political aspects of this culture—I think that I actually enjoy seeing black playwrights who choose to write about love and other things. But inevitably, I’m going to lean into some of the harder issues (Kai).When reviewing Nottage’s past, present, and possible future within theater, one is captivated by the level of success she has managed to achieve throughout her career. In reviewing her passions, her inspiration through her family, and her gift of storytelling by way of weaving together the fabrics of our history and values as a collective, Nottage has created a voice all her own. It is without surprise that she is regarded as a major playwright and one that has undoubtedly paved the way for woman and more specifically, Black women in writing.
Table of Contents