“It’s my historical mission and desire to rescue characters from obscurity,” says Lynn Nottage. Characters like the bastard black daughter of King Louis XIV. And a turn-of-the-century lingerie seamstress whose intimate apparel crosses class lines she herself cannot breach. And a seventeen-year-old country girl who braves city life in the 1950s.
This last story, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, is a thinly veiled allegory about African Americans’ migration from South to North. After the death of the matriarch, a family struggles to stay together. In humorous and sometimes outrageous ways, they deal on a domestic level with the big issues of their times: integration (dad marries a German woman he’s known for two days) and Cold War politics (a bourbon-loving, Communist-sympathizing aunt moves in).
Nottage’s creations range from the full-length Crumbs to Poof!, a ten-minute farce about an abused housewife who damns her husband to hell and is stunned when he obliges, leaving her staring at a pile of ashes; PBS turned it into a forty-five-minute drama. Nottage also wrote the screenplay for Side Streets, a Merchant-Ivory production that was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. All of her plays, however, “are about intimacy,” she says, “about people trying to find a connection, people alienated from their environment and trying to fit in.”
It’s a struggle she knows firsthand. A native New Yorker, Nottage attended Brown as an English concentrator and was surprised when she enrolled in a playwriting course to find Paula Vogel teaching it. After all, the majority of plays Nottage had read were by men. “And here comes this little woman who’s a woman and a working playwright,” she recalls. “I really appreciated that here was a theater practitioner who was in the midst of the battle, struggling and going through all the emotions, while teaching. She taught me something about the journey.”
Nottage studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, but when she finished she still wasn’t ready to commit to the journey. She spent the next four years working for Amnesty International in New York City. “It was all-consuming,” she says. “It introduced me to life on so many levels and to so many characters.”
Playwriting reasserted itself in the form of a request from Michael Dixon ’75, then literary manager of the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, who asked her to write a short piece. Another short became a vignette in A, My Name Is Still Alice, which enjoyed a New York run and won her the commission that ultimately became Crumbs.
In 1993 Nottage faced a crossroads: she had to commit to her job or her art. She chose the latter. It felt like free falling, she says. She worked as a temp. She watched lots of TV. She went to the movies. She didn’t do much writing. It took nine months before she found a rhythm again, and this time, to her delight, she felt she had something to say. “Prior to that, I was an adolescent groping for ideas because I hadn’t experienced anything,” she notes. “I became interested in interpersonal relationships and love and people’s quest to find love.”
For community, she joined Playwrights Horizons, which was home to a gathering of African American writers, and she became a resident artist at the avant-garde theater company Mabou Mines in 1992. She began producing her own plays, rounding up actors and finding spaces herself.
In 1997 Professor of Theatre, Speech, and Dance John Emigh produced Nottage’s Las Meninas at Brown. One of the play’s seeds, she says, lay in a Diego Velasquez painting of Queen Marie Therese with her meninas, or ladies-in-waiting, and a dwarf. From it, Nottage re-imagined the legend of Louis XIV’s wife and the illegitimate child she allegedly bore by a dwarf African servant. The play earned her an AT&T OnStage Award and a Rockefeller grant.
For Intimate Apparel, her 2002 play about a lingerie seamstress, Nottage drew on her own family history: a picture of her great-grandmother in a shoebox of old family photographs. “Her mute image begged for recognition,” Nottage wrote in the Los Angeles Times. The play’s premiere was jointly produced by Center Stage in Baltimore and South Coast Repertory Theatre, in Costa Mesa, California, and it will be presented at New York’s Roundabout Theatre next year.
“There isn’t a body of work, a history of literature,” for African American actresses,” Nottage says. “We have to sing ourselves into existence, and the fact that more and more of us are doing so is a form of advocacy. We’re here and demand to be here.”