The Pulitzer Prize winner on the intersection of human rights work and playwriting, telling stories that are "profoundly unheard," and why writing about Africa often amounts to little more than "pornography."
Image from Flickr via David Shankbone
Recognition has come in abundance for Lynn Nottage. She’s received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Grant, a Steinberg Award, and, in 2009, a Pulitzer Prize for Ruined, which went on to become one of the most produced plays in recent years, counting among its audience a UN Secretary General, a High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Oprah. But Nottage still has an outsider’s pluck, and in conversation she is, like many of her characters, most engaged and amused when she hears something with some bite to it.
Nottage’s work is unabashedly conscientious. Her plays are about survival in the wake of national or cultural traumas—behind the playwright is the former Amnesty International advocate—but they examine survival in its everyday form, full of flirting, jealousy, music, sex, squabbles, and ambition. Her characters, each with a distinct plight, speak with deeply personal voices, and Nottage’s craft is increasingly focused on sharpening that intimacy. For Ruined, she traveled to Uganda to absorb the stories of women fleeing civil war and widespread rape in neighboring DRC. For her 2011 play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, she pointed the audience to a website featuring excerpts from the fictional heroine’s autobiography. And for her new work, set in the early economic decline of Reading, Pennsylvania, she envisions an installation at the city’s center, made from the testimonials and images of Reading’s own citizens. With whatever media is at her disposal, Nottage is out to make injustices too familiar to be ignored.
Like her work, Nottage’s conversation is a confluence of accounts. She speaks at a slight remove from her words, trying out expressions and listening for which formulation is most apt. We spoke on Good Friday in the Old American Can Factory, a labyrinth of hardwood, wrought iron, freight elevators, and maddeningly cheerful and industrious youth. Deep inside the former factory is a series of sunny, book-lined rooms composing the home base for Market Road Films, the independent production company Nottage founded with her husband, Tony Gerber, in 2003. There, we spoke over the course of a morning about breaking into theater then and now, why she writes two plays at once, seeing her work performed in Africa, and how her race and sex get more press than her invention.
—Dwyer Murphy for Guernica
Guernica: After five minutes in your office, I can tell that you have more responsibilities than a typical writer. There are workshops, rehearsals, conference calls, and I think that’s a recording of machine gun fire next door. When do you write?
Lynn Nottage: Most of my life is spent trying to figure out strategies to write. I actually put time on my calendar and schedule the way you would a lunch meeting. I look at my calendar and say: “These days are writing days. I have to do it.” The number of those days varies from month to month. I did a lot of writing in March. In April I’m scheduled to do a lot of workshops. One of the workshops is designed so that there are two days of rehearsal, then I can take two days to write and address the issues that come up during the rehearsal process, and then there are two days where we can then assimilate the changes I’ve made.
Guernica: So workshops and rehearsals become part of the writing process?
Lynn Nottage: Rewriting is essential, particularly with new work. The workshop is the first time I really get to hear the words spoken aloud. They may be perfectly fine on the page, but once they’re spoken, I may realize that they’re an absolute horror show. That sometimes happens—something reads magically on the page, and I think I’ve written a gorgeous, literary monologue, then in the actor’s mouth it sounds so forced, stilted and overly crafted.
Guernica: You have to see a play performed before you can really know how you feel about the writing?
Lynn Nottage: It’s not finished until the audience sits down in the theater. Even in the midst of rehearsals, you don’t know what you have until it lives and breathes in front of an audience. Every writer should have the experience of an opening night, the rush of watching and hearing an audience react.
Guernica: You tend to work on two plays at the same time, I understand—do the two pieces inform one another? Or is it just about having a different outlet?
Lynn Nottage: It began as an exercise to keep me writing, so that when I got blocked, I wouldn’t get up and abandon the work. I could exercise completely different muscles, so that one didn’t atrophy while the other was being worked out. But what I quickly discovered was that the plays began to be in conversation with one another. For example, I was writing Intimate Apparel at the same time as Fabulation, and really I was looking at the same woman, but a hundred years apart. With Ruined and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, they’re both about people forced to make compromised choices in order to survive. But with By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, it was also a matter of needing to go somewhere light while I was writing Ruined. The research for Vera Stark was fun—I got to watch old movies. The play was fast and funny and used tools I’d never used before.
Guernica: How did you make the leap back into playwriting? You’d been gone for some years after drama school, working as the national press officer for Amnesty International.
Lynn Nottage: I worked on this case at Amnesty called the “Hi-Fi Murders.” I have a research binder on it right there. [Nottage pulls out a black three-ring binder with notes and clippings.] It was a brutal murder case in which two men entered a hi-fi store and ended up murdering the staff in the most gruesome way, forcing them to drink Drano—something they’d seen in a Clint Eastwood film. What made the case unusual was that one of the guys had decided that he didn’t want to be involved and left while it was happening, and wasn’t entirely aware of what was going on. We were working on the sentencing phase for this guy, trying to get him a life prison sentence instead of execution. Race was involved. During the trial a note was passed among the jury that said, “Hang the niggers.”
I don’t think the government can decide who lives and who dies, especially where we have such problems with racism.
We were working on this case around the clock. We had support from Archbishop Tutu, and the head of the Mormon Church. The governor had agreed to speak with us. And finally, we were told there’d be a stay of execution. I went home that night feeling victorious and confident, but the next morning when I got to work I learned he was dead. The governor had changed his mind and they executed him. I still get emotional thinking about it. I thought how could they do this? I’m not saying that he was innocent. He wasn’t. But I fundamentally don’t believe that we can punish a crime by perpetuating it. I don’t think the government can decide who lives and who dies, especially where we have such problems with racism. That was the case that broke me. It broke a lot of people in the office.
Guernica: After that case, you left Amnesty?
Lynn Nottage: No, I stayed on for some months after that. One day a woman came into the office with photographs she had taken of women arriving at a battered women’s shelter, and she asked what we could do for these women. This was Donna Ferrato—the photographs became famous later. But because Amnesty has a mandate to focus its efforts on government actors, we really couldn’t do anything around domestic abuse. And I was just devastated by these photographs. You could see all the anguish and frustration in the women’s faces. I had to respond in some way. So, I closed my office door and wrote a short play called Poof! There was a flyer sitting on my desk for a short play competition in Louisville. I sent it off, it won, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville produced the play.
Guernica: Do you think that breaking into playwriting would be a much different experience now?
Lynn Nottage: The theater world is so different today. In a way it’s easier. There are more workshops nurturing young and emerging playwrights. There are more commissioning opportunities. They recognize that in order to create the next generation of playwrights they have to make it sustainable. That involves understanding that it takes a year to write the work. Young playwrights are getting grants of $30,000 that include health benefits. That was unheard of when I was a young playwright. The first commission I received was for $500.
So much of writing now is about pleasing the powers that be, because the playwrights are dependent on the beneficence of the theaters.
I’m incredibly grateful this is happening, but sometimes I worry about it becoming too easy. Young playwrights are usurped by theaters so quickly, they don’t have time to develop a voice. When you’re so quickly absorbed, you don’t feel that tension, that struggle to define and assert one’s voice, and that ultimately shapes what we see on stage. So much of writing now is about pleasing the powers that be, because the playwrights are dependent on the beneficence of the theaters.
Guernica: You’ve received a lot of grant and fellowship money over the years. Is that something you could have imagined when you were younger? Has it changed the way you write?
We were a generation that thought we were never going to get produced. We thought, “They’re never going to like our work, so fuck them, I’ll write what I want.”
Lynn Nottage: My grants are over now, as we speak. And before all that, I remember Christmases with my husband where we had ten dollars in the bank account, eating ramen and counting change in our pockets. We’d spend our last money going to the movies. We were a generation that thought we were never going to get produced. We thought, “They’re never going to like our work, so fuck them, I’ll write what I want.”
Guernica: When you made the leap from Amnesty back to the theater, what was it that plays could do for you that a human rights report, for example, couldn’t?
Lynn Nottage: Human rights reports, as important as they are, are very dry. They use clinical language and they’re statistic-heavy. They don’t give a full portrait of a human being. They reduce a person to the most horrible thing that’s happened to them. Theater can give three-dimensions to two-dimensional stories. We did a performance of Ruined where human rights workers and the UN Secretary General attended. There was one guy there who had worked in the DRC for eleven years, and had dealt with human rights abuses every day in the field, but he told me that sitting in the play, he cried about it for the first time. When he was working, he was forced to put up this shield. A play can be like an injection—it can poke the needle directly into you and infuse you with life and humanity.
Guernica: When you’re writing something like Ruined, are you imagining the government official or the policymaker who might be in the audience and who might be moved?
Lynn Nottage: No. At the time I was writing Ruined, I didn’t know if anyone was going to want to see a play about rape in the DRC. It was in the back of the newspapers. I wrote the play because I thought it was an important story and the plight of the women moved me. My plays often begin with an idea that haunts me. I’ll wake up in the morning thinking about it. With Ruined, I was haunted, and I had no idea it would have the impact it did.
Guernica: And when this idea came to you, you decided that you needed to go to Africa, to interview the women subjected to these atrocities?
Lynn Nottage: I’d just done Fabulation with Kate Whoriskey and we were trying to figure out a project to do together. We’d talked about doing Brecht’s Mother Courage forever and wanted to set it in the Congo, in that hideous, protracted war. We decided to go to East Africa, to find out what we couldn’t learn in the newspapers.
Guernica: Were the women reluctant to speak about what had happened to them?
Lynn Nottage: You’d think it would be really hard to get these women to talk about their experiences, but there were actually too many women for us to interview. Some women had walked ten miles to tell their stories. I was up front with them—I told them I’m not a human rights worker. I’m not a doctor. I’m just a storyteller. Tell me your story and I’ll listen beginning to end. And that was the difference. Once they started, they’d tell you the most minute details, because they felt so profoundly unheard. They said people wanted to know the statistics and what happened, but no one wanted to know who they were. They’d thank us at the end, because I believe it was ultimately cathartic for them. They’d tell the stories and the tears would come streaming down.
Guernica: When did you know that this play was not going to be just a version of Mother Courage?
Lynn Nottage: I knew after hearing the first few interviews, which were just devastating, that we were going to tell these women’s stories, not Mother Courage. Mother Courage is a play about a woman written from a man’s perspective. So much of how women experience war is through their bodies. One consistent thing from war to war—from Africa to the Balkans to the Middle East—is that women’s bodies become battlegrounds.
Guernica: You’ve said that much of what’s written about Africa is pornography. What do you mean by that, and how do you go about it differently?
Lynn Nottage: It’s exploitative. A lot of what you read about Africa is pointed toward the darker side. I wanted to show the humanity. Congo is so physically beautiful. It has such a rich literary history and a fraught political history. There’s so much to be mined, but usually all anyone talks about is the horror, the Conrad view of Africa. I wanted to try to get to know these women as thoroughly as possible, and in getting to know them, find and honor their humanity.
Guernica: How did you transform their stories into a play?
Lynn Nottage: I did all these interviews—three years interviewing women throughout East Africa. Once I finished the research, I never looked at it again. I just thought, “I’m done. I’ve heard it. I’ve absorbed it. It’s in my body.” So I sat down to write, and I literally never looked back at the notes.
Guernica: For Ruined, you wrote the lyrics for the original compositions featured throughout the piece. What role did you intend for the music?
Lynn Nottage: Music is part of any village in Congo. You hear the music, the drums. It’s what draws people together. It’s at the core of the culture. I couldn’t imagine writing a play about that culture without music being a part of it. And we wanted to use the music in a very specific way for the storytelling. If there’s anything that’s Brechtian in Ruined, it’s the songs. I use the songs to deliver some difficult subtext. The audience doesn’t necessarily understand what they’re hearing. It’s subliminally delivering the harder-to-digest expositional message.
Guernica: Ruined ended up being one of the most produced plays of the decade. It was even produced in the DRC, in Chad. How was it received in Africa?
Lynn Nottage: It was important that the play was produced in the DRC. It was a conversation that needed to be heard, particularly in Kinshasa, which is the seat of government, and which is separated from the eastern regions, where the war is happening, by an enormous distance. I went to rehearsal in Kinshasa, and there were young women doing the play who had no idea what was going on in the east. Many of the actors were reading the play like a revelation. I wondered how was it possible to be living in a country where rape is endemic, where 5.4 million have been killed, and to have absolutely no awareness of it. And so that’s why I thought it was important for the play to be in Kinshasa.
Guernica: Did the government take notice of the play?
Lynn Nottage: We specifically invited a lot of government officials, but they have a very different theater-going culture—they were on their cell phones, chatting. It certainly had an impact on the actors who did it, though. They wanted to tour it around the whole country.
Guernica: Was it a similar situation in Chad?
Lynn Nottage: In Chad, there was one actor who cornered me at a party after the play. I had seen him a couple nights before in the show, and he was not very good—he was on stage resisting acting. But he wanted to tell me why he was doing this production. He said that in Chad, if you’re a woman who is a musician or an actress, you’re considered to be a prostitute. His daughter was an actress, and she’d been up in the north doing a show—a lot of these plays are agitprop, addressing AIDS or domestic violence. One night, the police set upon the actresses and beat and raped them for doing the play. And this man, the father, went to local officials for justice for his daughter and was turned away. No one would pay attention to him. He was devastated. So he said, “The reason I did Ruined is to stand up to the government. I’m doing this play for my daughter, to tell her I’m invested in what she does.” And I just burst into tears. What he was doing was such an act of bravery. He wasn’t an actor. He was just a guy. He wanted to protest the government, so he just went up there and did this play. The people who are doing my play in these countries are renegades. They are so brave.
Black male stories have found more of a space on film and television now, but as an African-American woman writer, our stories remain frightening or alien and are not invited to be part of the mainstream conversation… That’s what I’m looking at in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark—the history of omission.
Guernica: You were adapting Ruined for HBO, but they ultimately passed. Why? Is this a difficult story to put on screen?
Lynn Nottage: They didn’t like my script, I guess. One of the things that they ask you in Hollywood, and also on Broadway, is who is the big star for this. And it’s a Catch-22, because if you don’t create the stars for these stories, they won’t exist. My stories are not familiar. A lot of people who go to see a film, they want to see their sensibilities reinforced. They want to be in a familiar universe. And for many, many years in America, that was a white male universe. For some reason, black male stories have found more of a space on film and television now, but as an African-American woman writer, our stories remain frightening or alien and are not invited to be part of the mainstream conversation, even though we’re a key part of shaping American culture. You take out black American women from American culture and a lot of white babies don’t get raised. We were at the forefront of the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, but somehow black women get removed from the conversation. That’s what I’m looking at in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark—the history of omission.
Guernica: Did you find that same difficulty when you were starting out in the theater world?
Lynn Nottage: It was really hard. I didn’t have many role models. I couldn’t look to the stage and see African-American women being produced in any significant numbers. It was really hard to convince theaters that there was an audience for this work. Theaters are protective and conservative about their audiences. They have people who come on a regular basis and they don’t want to scare them off. As an African-American writer, you were lucky if you could get something produced. If you did, it was usually in the Black History slot, which means that your show runs for February, the shortest month.
Guernica: Do you bristle at being categorized with other African-American women writers?
Lynn Nottage: I embrace the grouping, but at times it can be reductive, because we all write in such different voices. Particularly now, I think we are as different as we are similar. We are bound by our race and gender, we have strong black women at the core of our writing, but we come at our subject matter as differently as white writers. It’s like putting all white male writers together.
Guernica: Do you feel like you get less attention from a literary press that is still, in some ways, pretty white?
Lynn Nottage: It’s not that I get less attention, but I get different attention. I’m still figuring this out, but I think there’s a way the press writes about our work that marginalizes it. It’s not focused on how the work speaks universally, but on me as an African-American writer. As if that’s the center of what my work is. I feel like that’s reductionist. They don’t ask Neil LaBute to talk about his whiteness, about how being a white man affects his writing. It is implicit. They ask him craft questions. They ask about the work itself.
Guernica: What in your craft is marginalized? What is it that the press isn’t writing about?
Lynn Nottage: With By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which is a transmedia piece, I think that if I were a white writer, the press would have written about the multimedia aspects of it. Instead they chose to focus on race. It’s about me being a black woman, instead of how I told the story. And how I told the story was new and inventive. In a way, I think that invention is only allowed for white people.
Guernica: What are the stories that are haunting you now? That you want to tell?
Lynn Nottage: The issue that is pressing for me right now is poverty. I feel as though the class divide is getting larger and larger, and for me it’s a deeply personal story. I have friends who existed in the middle class for years and now can’t feed their families. And when you’re in your twenties or even thirties there’s a certain level of resilience, but when you’re in your forties or fifties, and you’ve been working twenty-five years at the same job and that job’s suddenly removed and you don’t have any options, what are you going to do? That’s increasingly the narrative of America, and it’s being ignored.
Guernica: What pieces are you working on to tell that story?
Lynn Nottage: I went to Reading, Pennsylvania to try to figure this out, top to bottom, in one place, in this city that had a thriving industrial background, that used to be a destination where people went to shop at the outlets. It was a city that used to have coal, steel, textiles, where there was agriculture in the surrounding county. It began a slow decline when the railroad stopped going through there, then when NAFTA happened, when things started shifting south. So that’s the setting for the play I’m working on now.
Guernica: And the other play you’re working on, assuming you’re writing two pieces at once?
Lynn Nottage: Well, while I was working on this, I realized that I didn’t want to be a carpetbagger—I didn’t want to cannibalize this place. I wanted to tell a story that exists within the city, so I came up with this elaborate plan of making a social sculpture, an interactive transmedia installation that is a living documentary of the town. Something that would incorporate all the stories we’re collecting, something that lets people engage and tell their own stories. I want it to be a living, breathing documentary at the center of the town.
Guernica: You grew up in the community where you still live—in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Is that feeling of continuity and community reflected in what you write, what you’re interested in?
Lynn Nottage: It was a multicultural neighborhood, which was unusual at the time. It was primarily black and Latino, but it was a neighborhood where everyone fleeing their other neighborhoods went. So you ended up with this unusual group of hippies, queers, Latinos, Irish, blacks, Mohawks, artists, merchant marines, and junkies. We were a neighborhood of others. That was what defined us. In many ways it’s made me a more adventurous writer. Stylistically, I’ll go places that make me uncomfortable. I have a willingness to explore and investigate otherness in ways that is not necessarily true of other African-American writers. And my plays are multicultural. I sometimes think that theater is the last bastion of segregation. When you go to a theater, you see a black play and it’s all black people, or a Latin play, and it’s all Latinos. When you go to a white play, it’s like there are no people of color who live in New York.
Guernica: Do you mourn the old neighborhood?
Lynn Nottage: I miss so many things about the old neighborhood. I don’t miss being mugged. I don’t miss the fact that, growing up, our house was robbed eight times. One time I came home and the television and the stereo were gone. And my mother said, “We need to go get new stuff right now. We’ve got to have something for them to steal.” You had to have some mugging money on you. But I do miss the people. There were so many interesting, wonderfully textured folks on my block. And that’s not the case anymore—or they aren’t as warm and friendly as they used to be. It’s much more homogenous. One of the wonderful things about Boerum Hill back then was that it wasn’t just racially diverse, it was economically diverse. You could have a lawyer going to work on Wall Street living next to someone on food stamps. And they’d come out and have a conversation and be neighborly. That kind of community identity doesn’t exist in the same way.
Guernica: Are you a person who gets to know your neighbours?
Lynn Nottage: Oh yeah. When I was living on the Upper West Side, I made it my mission to get into every apartment. I wanted to see how people lived, how they decorated.
Guernica: You just show up with a pie?
Lynn Nottage: I engage people in the elevator. We’ll have a barbecue and invite people over, and they’ll reciprocate. Playwrights and novelists, we’re different animals. As playwrights, we’re straddlers. We’re introverted and extroverted. We need solitude to write, but we crave company. We’re fundamentally collaborative creatures. We can’t finish our work until we invite others in.