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Through the Eyes of a Storyteller

Lynn Nottage's stage writing blends fictional elements with family tales and inspiration borne of her work in a human rights agency.

September 08, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

For most young playwrights, sending out scripts is the first order of business. Not for Lynn Nottage. Fresh out of drama school, the fourth-generation New Yorker swore off theater and went to work for Amnesty International.

"It's probably the most important experience I've had in my life," says Nottage, 31, of the four years she spent working for the human rights advocacy agency. "It will inform everything I do."

She returned to the theater world three years ago, and the change is evident in her work. "The plays that I wrote prior to [leaving] tend to be more serious and didactic," says Nottage, who lives in New York with her husband, cats and fish. "After, I discovered my sense of humor. The plays' subject matter was just as serious, but the strategy was less serious."

With productions already to her credit at venues such as Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and Actors' Theatre of Louisville, Nottage makes her West Coast debut with "Crumbs From the Table of Joy," opening Sept. 20 at South Coast Repertory, directed by Seret Scott.

Nottage's success in the theater, however, shouldn't be taken as a sign that she's left her social conscience behind. This, after all, is a woman who ponders the possibility of going back to human rights work "every morning, every day."

And the concerns that prompt such thoughts also inform her dramas. "Certainly my life philosophy, which translates into my writing, is there," she says. "For me, playwriting is sharing my experiences, telling my stories. I do see myself as an old-fashioned storyteller. But there's always a touch of the political in my plays."

The eldest of two children of a psychologist father and a schoolteacher mother, Nottage grew up in a Brooklyn home steeped in both culture and social activism.

"My parents are avid consumers of art, collectors of African American paintings and have always gone to the theater," the African American playwright said in an interview, having just arrived in Costa Mesa after a vacation in Barbados. "My mother has always been an activist too. As long as I can remember, we were marching in lines."

Nottage attended New York's High School of Music and Art. There she developed an interest in musical theater and was one of four students chosen to write an original musical for the school's young playwrights' festival in 1981.

Yet, despite such early success in theater, Nottage enrolled as a premed major at Brown University, with a focus on marine biology. Sea anemones didn't hold her interest for long, however. "My advisor asked me point-blank one day, 'Do you really want to spend the rest of your life classifying the flora and fauna of the sea?' " She did not.

Nottage switched her major to English literature and creative writing, and began to reacquaint herself with the theater, taking a course in playwriting during her senior year.

After graduating from Brown in 1986, she entered the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama. "It was absolutely the worst time of my life, and I can say that with no hesitation," says Nottage of the intense three-year conservatory.

"I hadn't fully formed the notion of what I wanted to do. I felt [playwriting] was extremely decadent and useless."

Nottage graduated from Yale in 1989 and returned to New York, where she took a job as national press officer for Amnesty International.

"I loved doing it," she says. "I loved that your accomplishments were tangible. When you worked hard to get someone free, you could celebrate with them."

After a few years, however, the downside got to her. "It was just incredibly stressful and emotionally taxing," Nottage says. "I am a creative person, a storyteller, and I was dealing in an occupation where I had to discuss hard-core facts."

She returned to playwriting with a renewed sense of purpose, and "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" was one of the first works she completed.

Written in 1993 for Second Stage in New York, the play is set in the early 1950s, and tells the story of a Florida widower who migrates with his two daughters to Brooklyn after the sudden death of his wife.

The story was inspired by Nottage's godsister. "[She and her family] moved from Florida shortly after the matriarch had passed away," Nottage says. "They moved to Brooklyn, which was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. A vivacious bon vivant aunt came to live with them, and to escape the father left and [eventually] turned up married to a white German woman."

Like their real-life equivalents, the characters in Nottage's play all have a sense of dislocation. "They are all individuals who are at different stages of alienation from society because of who they are and the choices they've made in their lives," she says.

"There's the aunt who was a Communist, unmarried in her 30s and a social outcast. A German woman who has chosen, at a time when it was not popular, to marry a black man. And two children who have to process living with this family and living through 1950."

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