Lynn Nottage: A playwright made for D.C. audiences rarely sees her work produced here


American playwright Lynn Nottage sits for a portrait in her studio in Brooklyn, NY on April 6th, 2014. Nottage is a Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur grant winning playwright. (Jesse Dittmar/For The Washington Post)

You’d think Washington would perpetually be in the market for sophisticated, unpredictable, audience-friendly plays by a black female playwright. Yet plays by Lynn Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur fellow, seldom make it to major stages here.

She’s had a far higher profile in Baltimore, where Nottage’s bitingly titled “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” gets its area premiere this week at Everyman Theatre. (The formidable local actress Dawn Ursula, of Woolly Mammoth’s “Clybourne Park” and “The Convert,” has the title role of an aspiring black actress in 1930s Hollywood.)

“Intimate Apparel” premiered at Baltimore’s Center Stage in 2003 and got a small-scale production in Washington from the seldom-seen African Continuum Theatre Company in 2008. The zippy modern social satire “Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine” was commissioned by Center Stage and appeared there in 2009. It hasn’t been professionally staged yet in Washington.

“I don’t know why I haven’t penetrated D.C.,” Nottage says from Brooklyn.

It’s not that Nottage is especially prolific or a major Broadway baby — but then Broadway is mainly a playground for musical circuses, not serious playwrights. What she is, though, is well known nationally and a seemingly logical choice for a city where institutional theaters insist they’d like to diversify their audiences.

The exception was “Ruined,” a hot property after taking the drama Pulitzer in 2009. In 2011, Arena Stage produced that wrenching play, which used the loose outline of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage” to examine women in a war zone of the modern Congo.

After “Ruined” came “Vera Stark,” a stylish look at the travails of black actresses in 1930s Hollywood. The show debuted in New York three years ago and has played leading theaters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Louisville and elsewhere. This spring the show is being seen in Pittsburgh, Houston and Kansas City. Most troupes have already announced their plans for 2014-15, and it looks as if Everyman is as close to D.C. as “Vera Stark” will get.

“The difficulty for me is I’m not the next new thing,” Nottage says. “And if you don’t have a hit in New York, it’s hard it’s come into a place like D.C.”

It’s a Nottage hallmark that creatively, she’s hard to peg. Kate Whoriskey directed the premieres of “Intimate Apparel” and “Fabulation” and traveled to Uganda with Nottage to fact-find for “Ruined”; Whoriskey is also set to direct “Sweat,” Nottage’s play about America’s post-industrial blues as seen through the beleaguered people of Reading, Pa. (Arena Stage co-commissioned the piece; the premiere is set for summer 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s too early to tell whether Arena will present it here.) Whoriskey says the only common denominator is Nottage’s highly original subjects and protagonists.

“There’s not a signature style,” says Whoriskey, who has lately joined Nottage in the Reading research. “The style changes because of what she’s writing about.”

As “Fabulation” made its New York debut, critic Michael Feingold wrote in the Village Voice of Nottage’s “panoramic vew of life.” He added that at her best moments, “Nottage isn’t far from the great writers of a century ago, whom she clearly admires.”

“I’m a contemporary playwright in a postmodern world,” Nottage once told the New York Times, doing her best to categorize herself.

A ‘Stark’ fascination

Just as the sober “Intimate Apparel” was followed by the impish “Fabulation,” the grim display of war and rape in “Ruined” is a world apart from the screwball comedy that launches “Vera Stark.” Nottage became interested in the dicey options for black actresses in old Hollywood when she watched the 1933 movie “Baby Face,” with Barbara Stanwyck as a vengeful working-class gal sleeping her way to success. The picture featured intriguingly rich scenes with Theresa Harris as a maid; the Stanwyck-Harris relationship had more complexity than a thumbnail summary suggests. Harris made an impression.

“Who is she?” Nottage recalls thinking. “Why did she come to Hollywood? Who were the other actresses like her?”

Nina Mae McKinney, Fredi Washington and Hattie McDaniel, for starters. In the 1990s, Nottage and her husband, filmmaker Tony Gerber, ran into a familiar “Gone With the Wind Face” in Manhattan. Nottage asked, “Are you Butterfly McQueen?”

“I heard the little voice: ‘Yes, I am!’” Nottage recalls.

“Vera Stark” is the name Nottage gives her heroine, an African American actress angling for fame. Her eventual disappearance becomes both a mystery and a symbol of the fate that befell many black women in Hollywood, especially once the notorious production code enforced a ban on depictions of miscegenation.

Nottage created two fake Web sites — bythewaymeetverastark.com and www.meetverastark.com — that include video mockumentaries on the fictional Vera’s legacy. Acclaimed director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show”) even appears as a talking head.

“I wanted the conceit to be complete,” says Nottage, who created the site with help from Market Road Films, the production company she started in 2005 with Gerber. “I thought it would be fun for audiences.”

The play calls for movie footage from Vera’s career, and Everyman gave director Walter Dallas a film crew to shoot something original. As he researched, Dallas did his own social media survey to hear about current performers’ travails in getting work. Stereotypes persist.

“They were being asked to be more urban, be more this, more that — not just be yourself,” Dallas says. “Many of the stories sounded as if they might have come from the world of 1933 Hollywood.”

An activist stays busy

Nottage grew up in Brooklyn and was exposed to theater early, but she didn’t think seriously about playwriting until she was nearly through college at Brown University. After graduate studies at the Yale School of Drama, she worked in the press office for Amnesty International.

“I was exploring other aspects of myself, the activist side,” Nottage says. “I discovered the artist side that always raises its head when you try to do something else.”

“She’s someone who’s very invested in human rights and widening the scope of theater,” Whoriskey says. “Lynn has a beautiful way of making political and social situations human. I think that’s what she did so successfully in ‘Ruined.’ She carefully constructed that piece so a larger audience would relate to it.”

The acclaim for “Ruined” was a game-changer, right?

“You’re suddenly given a title, like ‘Dame Lynn Nottage,’” the playwright jokes. “You’re ‘Pulitzer-winning playwright.’ ”

That makes it easier to get scripts read right away, she says. Not that she has been cranking out scripts since “Ruined” and “Vera Stark.” Has she?

“Don’t judge me,” Nottage says sheepishly.

In fact, she’s been busy with Market Road, mostly producing documentaries. (“The Notorious Mr. Bout,” about Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, played the Sundance Film Festival this winter.) But she’s also been researching what she calls the “de-industrial revolution” in Reading, which has topped Flint, Mich. as the country’s poorest city, according to recent Census Bureau data.

When Nottage began visiting, she says, “Everyone spoke of Reading in past tense. We can’t find the vocabulary or language to identify who we are in the present or future tense.”

Like “Vera Stark,” “Sweat” will be what Nottage calls a “transmedia” project, with a presence on stage, online and on film. (You can watch an early trailer for the Market Roads film “This Is Reading” at Nottage’s Web site, lynnnottage.com.) The film is a documentary, and even though nonfiction is increasingly favored onstage, it’s not how Nottage will write “Sweat.”

“That’s not the kind of artist I am,” she says. “I like to immerse myself, and from there tell a story.”

She’s frank about owning her activism and believes that saying it out loud holds her to a standard she has to back up. “I think it’s always been part of my interest, though I didn’t articulate it until I got older,” she says. “You get asked more and more, so you have to come up with language. The act of saying what you do helps shape you as an artist.”

One of her earliest plays, “Por’knockers,” dealt with bumbling terrorists; Nottage wrote it just before the Oklahoma City bombings. “Mud, River, Stone” (1997) dealt with political disputants in an African hostage crisis.

Those plays weren’t acclaimed. For Nottage the aspiring artist, times were hard. But she was intent on writing.

Things began to look up due to 1995’s “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” a coming-of-age drama about a black family in 1950s Brooklyn.

“That found an audience, and other theaters grew interested,” she says. (Round House Theatre produced it here in 2001, when the troupe was still in its 200-seat facility.) “It was a different landscape. Not a lot of plays by women of color were being produced.”

It’s easier now to generate a ready list of working black women playwrights – among them Katori Hall, Lydia Diamond, Danai Gurira, Jackie Sibblies Drury, and of course Nottage’s immediate contemporary, the aggressively poetic Suzan-Lori Parks (another MacArthur-Pulitzer winner).

Yet Nottage frets.

“My fears about where theater is going: It’s the Hollywood model, where people are chasing the almighty dollar and making commercial decisions based on nothing more than generating income for themselves and their theaters. I feel like opportunities on big stages are shrinking, just like plays are shrinking.”

Her own portfolio grows: She’s writing an operatic version of “Intimate Apparel” with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, with interest from the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater. There’s a musical in the works with busy composer Jeanine Tesori. Market Road has more projects in motion.

“The essence of creativity is to look beyond where you can actually see,” Nottage says. “I don’t want to dwell in same place too long.”

READ MORE: Nottage industry: Area productions of the playwright’s work

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

by Lynn Nottage. April 16-May 11 at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette St., Baltimore. Tickets $32-$60. Call 410-752-2208 or visit everymantheatre.org.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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