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Playwright Lynn Nottage startles audiences

By Celia Wren,

The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Ruined,” now at Arena Stage, burst into public view in 2008, a distillation of war, travel, massive suffering and some smiles that, to writer Lynn Nottage, were a revelation. The acclaimed playwright has vivid memories of interviewing refugees during her research for the play, which tells of a bar-and-brothel in the violence-scarred contemporary Democratic Republic of Congo.

Congo has long been wracked by a dizzyingly complex armed conflict that has unleashed a pandemic of rape. Several years ago, Nottage traveled to Africa to hear from women who had experienced the crisis firsthand. The dramatist, a 2007 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship (the honor sometimes termed a “genius grant”), recalls that she wanted “to examine the way in which war impacts women and to look at gender-specific human rights abuses. Because that’s one of the things I find is always lacking in examination of war: the impact it has on women and children.”

She was hoping to fold the material into a planned reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s classic “Mother Courage and Her Children,” but that idea receded as she learned more specifics about Congo.

Her interviewees astonished her, she said.

“These women that I encountered had been through some of the most horrific things that you can possibly imagine,” she says. “[Yet] they managed to resurrect their lives and access their smiles.” Nottage — who would ultimately make three research trips to Africa — realized that her planned play would have to do justice to the continent’s intricacy and nuance.

A cut-and-dried war-is-hell script “would be the easy, simple play to write,” she says. “You show the horror, and then you end it. I felt the challenge was figuring out a way to show the full complexity of life in Africa, which is this dance between people living their lives and then suddenly being thrust into these untenable situations, and then figuring out a way to live again.”

Public opinion seems to hold that Nottage mastered the challenge with “Ruined,” which debuted in Chicago and New York, received critical raves and nabbed the Pulitzer in 2009. The dramatist’s success in this instance is, perhaps, not surprising, because complexity — the quality she was striving for in “Ruined” — characterizes her artistic output.

The 46-year-old writer, who is one of Arena Stage’s “project resident” dramatists (commissioned to write a script that the company will produce), sets her plays in vastly different eras and milieus and tailors her aesthetic to each project. For instance, the widely performed “Intimate Apparel” (2003)m which was co-premiered by Baltimore’s Center Stage and California’s South Coast Repertory, tells a quiet, bittersweet story about an African American seamstress in 1905 New York City. But a companion piece, 2004’s “Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine,” is an antic satire about a public relations professional in modern Manhattan.

“Crumbs from the Table of Joy” (1995) travels to 1950s Brooklyn to portray an African American family influenced by communism and by the religious leader Father Divine. “Por’knockers” (1995) is a political satire partly set in the Guyana rain forest. “Las Meninas” (2002) recounts a surreptitious romance between an African dwarf and the wife of King Louis XIV of France.

“She has an extraordinary vision, and has done a lot of different things,” says Charles Randolph-Wright, who is directing Arena’s production of “Ruined,” scheduled to open Thursday. He points out that the play is a complex, chromatic mixture of epiphanies and moods. “There’s humor in the play. There’s joy in the play. There’s music,” he says.

“She writes plays about amazing topics, and each one is totally different,” marvels Carole Rothman, artistic director of New York’s Second Stage Theatre, which is debuting Nottage’s latest work: the screwball-comedy-inspired “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” about the showbiz aspirations, and subsequent controversial career, of an African American woman who works as a maid in 1930s Hollywood. The play is in previews, with a scheduled opening May 9.

Kate Whoriskey, a director who mounted the world premieres of “Ruined,” “Intimate Apparel” and “Fabulation,” also sees variety as a hallmark of the writer’s achievements. “She has more range than other playwrights, and she has the ability to be very specific,” so that “the material she’s writing about finds the style,” Whoriskey says.

Chatting about her work in early April, Nottage observed that a conceptual through-line links her distinctive scripts. “My plays are stylistically different yet thematically similar,” she said, in the considered tone of someone who had been queried on the topic before. “What ties them all together is, by and large, women from the African diaspora, women who, in some regards, are marginalized by the culture at large.”

The Brooklyn resident had arrived for the interview, at the midtown Manhattan offices of Second Stage, toting a heavy bag. Life had been hectic that morning in the brownstone she shares with her filmmaker husband, her two children, ages 2 and 13, and her father, and she hadn’t figured out how to silence the ringer on her new BlackBerry.

Still, she exuded an air of calm and concentration, a mind-set she would no doubt need in the countdown to the first performance of “Vera Stark,” that evening.

The new Tinseltown-themed piece, she says, was written at the same time as “Ruined” and was, initially, a means of giving herself a break from the emotionally grueling Congo tale.

“It was a fun release,” she says, although she notes that “Vera Stark” subsequently gathered its own seriousness and momentum.

She based “Vera Stark” partly on the careers of lesser-known African American actresses such as Theresa Harris. So this new play, too, exemplifies Nottage’s passion for writing about women of African heritage or descent, an interest she traces back to her relationship with her mother, who could be reticent about family history.

“I knew that there was a great deal of depth and life that was sitting just beyond my mother’s gaze,” the playwright remembers, adding that because her mother died relatively young, “I was never able to fully ask her all the questions that I wanted to ask her. And the same is true of my grandmother. I feel as though my journey as a writer is a hunt to understand them as women.”

Nottage’s parents were lovers of the arts, and growing up in Brooklyn — in the house she now lives in — she regularly attended plays, including shows by New York’s storied Negro Ensemble Company. She studied English and American literature and creative writing at Brown University, and later enrolled in the graduate playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama.

After Yale, she did not dive into the theater world. Instead, she took a job in the national press office of Amnesty International.

“In many ways, I consider those to be my formative years,” she says, “because when you’re in school, you have a distant relationship to the world, in that most of what you’re learning is from books and lectures. But at Amnesty, I came face to face with realities in a very direct and harsh way.”

The job was exciting but stressful. “There’s never any ebb in human misery,” she reflects.

After four years, she quit and concentrated on writing. In 1992, she contributed a short piece to “A . . . My Name Is Still Alice,” a musical revue produced at Second Stage. Her selection, titled “Ida Mae Cole Takes a Stance,” was “very brave, very bold and very funny,” Second Stage’s Rothman recalls. Impressed, Rothman and her colleagues commissioned a full-length play from Nottage, and when the script came in, “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” they produced it.

Nearly 20 years on, that gesture of confidence has paid off again with “Vera Stark,” which, Rothman says, “does what theater is supposed to do: startle you and take you different places.”

Nottage’s writing career — and, since the Pulitzer win, her travel and public appearance schedule — have kept her pretty busy. Asked whether she has any hobbies, she jokes, “My hobby is raising my children.” But she admits that she scrapes together time, when necessary, to tend the tea roses and other plants in the family garden.

And she hasn’t been too busy to ponder a new script she’ll undertake for her Arena Stage’s residency. Topping her wish list for the project: an RV. She’d like to travel around the country in the vehicle, gathering the stories of people who are struggling to cope with 21st-century economic realities.

“I want to know what is happening in America,” she says.

If you go: Ruined

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