Empathetic, Bright and Mosaic:

Lynn Nottage's Voice and Viewpoint

By Caroline Michele Uy

Clyde’s is On Stage Now – October 9!
Black and white photo of Playwright Lynn Nottage, next to a purple panel that reads Clyde's in white letters and Lynn Nottage in a yellow banner.

After achieving a New York theatrical hat trick, celebrated playwright Lynn Nottage returns to Chicago for her fifth Goodman collaboration.

Earlier this year, Lynn Nottage was one of the busiest people in New York City, where three of her shows were playing onstage at the same time. While Clyde’s finished its Broadway run at the Helen Hayes Theater and MJ the Musical, for which she wrote the libretto, played preview performances at the Neil Simon, Nottage’s portfolio expanded to include a new opera, Intimate Apparel, at the Lincoln Center. Adapted from her 2003 play of the same title, it follows Esther, a young Black seamstress in 1905 New York, who creates lingerie for a range of clientele in pursuit of her dreams of opening an independent beauty parlor. The piece, inspired by Nottage’s great-grandmother, is one of her best-known works, encapsulating her penchant for exploring complicated and uncomfortable themes through the conduit of humor and laughter­—one of the many skills that have contributed to the writer’s unmitigated success.

It’s hard now to imagine the American theater scene without Nottage’s plays as part of our everyday lexicon, but it was once a likely possibility. Although Nottage penned her first full length script in high school, she initially attended Brown University on a pre-med scholarship. She eventually switched majors to English and African-American studies, working a series of odd jobs to make up for the lost scholarship. She later attended the Yale School of Drama for her MFA, but sold her word processor and gave up writing amid the AIDS epidemic and 1990s drug crisis to work as the National Press Officer at Amnesty International. While there, amplifying the stories of the human rights community, Nottage discovered her fundamental identity as a storyteller; after four years, she resigned, cashed out her 401(k) and returned to writing.

Nottage made her Goodman debut in 2006 with Crumbs from the Table of Joy, directed by resident director Chuck Smith. Told through the eyes of teenager Ernestine Crump, Crumbs focuses on a Black family in the 1950s, building their lives after the loss of their mother. Written to explore and infuse the era with color, Crumbs explores difficult themes of racial tension, free thought, grief and coping, though remaining thoughtfully amusing and touching. By this point, Nottage’s career was on the rise; one short year later, in 2007, she would be named a MacArthur Fellow and receive the “Genius Grant.”

Shortly after, Nottage returned to the Goodman that fall, where she workshopped a new play as part of the New Stages Series, directed by long term collaborator Kate Whoriskey. Nottage and Whoriskey had traveled, years prior, to East Africa to interview Congolese refugee women while Nottage contemplated a contemporary adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Growing beyond adaptation, that play became Ruined, a piece exploring the trauma of civil war and the use of sexual assault as a weapon of war. The piece received its world premiere, in co-production with Manhattan Theatre Club, on the Owen stage in 2008. Its New York transfer enjoyed a long run after nine extensions. The piece garnered Nottage her first Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009.

Nottage’s third Goodman production, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, directed by Chuck Smith in 2013, returned to America, now in Tinseltown in the 1930s. The play examines budding Black actress Vera Stark’s desperate attempts to control her career, before fast forwarding 70 years to examine how her legacy was shaped by the racism of the entertainment industry. Veering between irreverent, near screwball comedy, to academic inquiry, the play showcases Nottage’s vast range.

2019 brought Nottage back to the Goodman for a production of Sweat, directed by Ron OJ Parson. Inspired by the 2008 recession, Sweat delves into the lives of working-class Americans in the post-industrial American Rust Belt, as the loss of industry and shifting ethnic composition of small-town Reading, Pennsylvania sparks racial tension and the disintegration of relationships. The play won Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017, making her, as of today, the only woman to achieve the honor twice.

Nottage’s celebrated plays, expansive in forms, subjects and settings, unearth untold and unexamined stories of individuals across time and space, with no shortage of empathy and thoughtful humor. Clyde’s, Nottage’s most recent Goodman collaboration, is no exception, set in a truck stop diner with a cast of returning citizens struggling to resurrect their lives whilst under the thumb of a callous boss. Despite the discomfiting limbo they find themselves in, the group (which eagle-eyed theater-goers may notice includes Jason, a character from Sweat) manages to hang on to unlikely hope… in pursuit of the perfect sandwich. Like all of Nottage’s work, the piece encapsulates unexpected optimism in the face of complexity and the profound wisdom of the everyday.

Caroline Michele Uy is the Literary/Dramaturgy Apprentice for Goodman Theatre.

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