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Playwright Lynn Nottage: ‘Theatre is uniquely in the position to be at the vanguard of change’

Lynn Nottage. Photo: Dan Norman

Following the success of Sweat on Broadway and in London, Lynn Nottage’s latest play is a comedy that revisits the same de-industrialised city. She tells Howard Sherman about staying political and moving into musicals

Audiences familiar with Lynn Nottage from her hard-hitting plays Sweat and Ruined might be surprised that her newest work Floyd’s, currently running at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, is a comedy. She says they shouldn’t be.

“I think that I have within my repertoire an equal number of pieces that deploy humour as those that deploy pathos and tragedy,” the Brooklyn-born playwright says.

As examples she cites Fabulation, Or the Re-Education of Undine, about a PR’s fall from grace, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, about two African-American sisters, and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, about an aspiring star in Golden Era Hollywood. That said, even her comedies touch on weightier themes.

“They’re not designed to be all-out farces,” Nottage says. “I think the humour really stems from the reality of the situation and the space in which the characters find themselves. I think there’s definitely a conversation between the humour and the more serious aspects of the storytelling.”

‘De-industrialisation and corporate greed are global issues’

In Floyd’s, the characters are all former prison inmates working at the truck stop of the same name. “They have to negotiate freedom in an environment that is not hospitable, which is the reality for the majority of people who re-enter society and the workforce after they have been imprisoned,” she says. “In some ways, it’s a critique of how we treat people who have done their time and seek to re-enter society.”

It is set in Reading, Pennsylvania which, according to the 2010 census, was the city with the highest percentage of residents living in poverty in the US. She researched extensively, visiting the community over a two-year period and interviewing its residents, including those from the steelworks, for Sweat, familiar to London audiences after its critically acclaimed run first at the Donmar Warehouse and then in the West End this year.

Sweat review at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘nuanced and moving’

The two plays were written concurrently and exist “in conversation” with one another, Nottage says. Other plays she has written to complement each other in this way include Intimate Apparel – which garnered attention for its 2004 Off-Broadway production with Viola Davis – and Fabulation, as well as Ruined and Vera Stark.

A third Pennsylvania-set work, the site-specific This Is Reading, described as a “multimedia performance” created for the abandoned train station in the city, was another expression of her extensive research into the community. Nottage is careful to note that the three pieces shouldn’t be seen as a trilogy.

This Is Reading will not play anywhere else, she says. “The piece was designed to animate a space that had been laying fallow for a long time. It’s not something that would have the same resonance if we took all of the elements and put them in a traditional theatre.”

Q&A Lynn Nottage

Lynn Nottage. Photo: Susan Johann

What was your first non-theatre job?

What was your first professional theatre job?
Working as a dresser on The Piano Lesson at Yale Rep.

What is your next job?
The opera of Intimate Apparel.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s a battle of attrition. It takes time to develop one’s voice and to find one’s footing, but do not despair.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
My grandmother.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Lean into your confidence and know that the person sitting behind the table is rooting for you. We want everyone to succeed.

If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been?
Human rights activist.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I perform a ritual with cast and crew before every show, but it is for the people on stage.

Sweat, which explores the impact of deep cuts at the city’s steel factory on the locals, has been widely produced internationally, as well as taken to Reading itself. When Nottage considers what has drawn theatre companies to the piece, she says: “I think that one of the things that’s resonating across boundaries and borders is the fact that it’s about de-industrialisation.”

To illustrate the point, Nottage relates an email exchange with someone who was part of the first production of the play in Farsi, in Iran. Quoting her correspondent, she says: “This is exactly what’s happening in Iran. We’re grappling with a society that’s rapidly changing because of de-industrialisation – workers who have been dependent for years on jobs that they began when they were young that are disappearing. They’re finding themselves replaced in some respects with cheaper labour, many of whom are immigrants seeking opportunity.” She adds: “He could have been talking about America. I think de-industrialisation is a global issue. I think corporate greed is a global issue.”

Nottage is the only woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice: for Sweat and Ruined. The former reached Broadway, while the latter – a story about women in war-torn Congo – played a sustained Off-Broadway run. As a result of where they were first staged, the plays have had somewhat different lives after their New York engagements.

“The moment when Ruined had the opportunity for a larger audience, I think that there was resistance on the part of commercial producers to putting a play that had a black woman at the centre on the main stage,” Nottage says. “I repeatedly heard that the play was not commercial. Who was going to come and see it? I said: ‘Well, it’s the same people who have been coming to see it.’ ”

Sweat hit the stage at a very different time. “It came to New York during and after the 2016 election. I felt that at that moment, the play felt vital and urgent and in conversation with the culture.” She says that because of those societal factors she was not surprised by its reception, adding that Sweat went on to have more regional productions and a larger international reach than Ruined.

Nottage has recently begun working in musical theatre as well with her first foray as a book writer, The Secret Life of Bees, having premiered Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company earlier this summer. Describing herself as a novice who is finding her way, she credits Bees lyricist Susan Birkenhead as giving her a masterclass in the form as they worked together.

The Secret Life of Bees review at Linda Gross Theater, New York – ‘delicate and powerful’

Working on a musical was both difficult and exhilarating, Nottage says, adding she finds the intense intimacy that musicals require very compelling. “I think what’s interesting and surprising is really getting to know and understand your collaborators’ process and figuring out how to merge your voices so they feel as one – learning how to hold on to a sense of self, while at the same time letting go of things you love in order to make the collaboration successful and seamless.”

Another musical, Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough, with songs by Michael Jackson, for which Nottage is writing the book, is in progress, and she is currently enmeshed in workshops. It has been announced for Broadway next year.

Nottage is one of the playwrights in residence at New York’s Signature Theatre, which has recently staged major revivals of both Fabulation and Vera Stark. The playwright says that she was initially tempted to make revisions to the pieces, beyond updating some topical references in the former play, but that she ultimately decided against it.

“I thought ‘no’,” she says. “This stands as a testament to what I was thinking in that moment, and I don’t want to dismantle that impulse, even though there are things I feel are imperfect about it.” She describes watching both works at a distance, allowing her to appreciate both “their beauty and imperfection”.

‘It’s important to resist the critics who want us to be gentler in the ways we confront the things that trouble us’

When prompted to share what she tells her playwriting students on the first day of class at Columbia University, Nottage offers up a message for the theatre community at large. “I think that theatre is uniquely in the position to be at the vanguard of change, because it is a communal art form and is an art form that demands an immediate transaction. It demands a conversation between what’s on stage and the audience. It demands that there be some form of response.”

Nottage says: “It’s really important that we reflect what we’re seeing in culture at large in ways that are truthful, raw and honest, and that we resist the critics who want us to be gentler in the ways that we confront the things that trouble us. For a generation, there’s been a lot of pushback against plays that are political or grapple with issues in real time, in favour of plays that explore culture in metaphor. There are times that demand a very direct conversation. I think we’re in that moment now.”

CV Lynn Nottage

Born: 1964, Brooklyn
Training: BA, Brown University; MFA in playwriting, Yale School of Drama
Landmark productions:
• Crumbs from the Table of Joy (1995)
• Intimate Apparel (2003)
• Fabulation, Or the Re-Education of Undine, (2004)
• Ruined (2008)
• By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (2011)
• Sweat (2015)
• Mlima’s Tale (2018)
• The Secret Life of Bees (2019)
• Floyd’s (2019)
• Pulitzer Prize and Obie Award for Ruined
• American Theatre Critics and NY Drama Critics Awards for Intimate Apparel
• Obie Award for Fabulation, Or the Re-Education of Undine
• Pulitzer Prize, Obie Award and Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Sweat
• MacArthur fellowship
Agent: Olivier Sultan at CAA

Floyd’s is running at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, until August 31

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