Regina de Heer: Would you consider yourself a naturally optimistic person?
Ayush: Yes, I'm a pretty optimistic person. I would definitely consider myself an optimist. Just to know that how many things need to go right for a human person, to wake up, communicate, go through the day.
Andrew: I'm very optimistic, yes.
Manal: Not at all, actually, no.
Regina: Are you feeling optimistic going into this new year at all?
Manal: I was, everything was good until the past month. Then with COVID, that must've been scary because I was supposed to go back home and I haven't been home for about two years now-
Regina: Where is home?
Manal: -Pakistan. It's just insane to not be able to see your family and just live an alone life.
Sushil: Yes, I'm hopeful. The new year, just like going through 2020, 2021, how bad the past few years have been relative to the rest of my life, I feel like this is just more of a reason to be extra optimistic for 2022.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show, I'm Kai Wright, and Happy New Year. I am so excited to begin the year in our show with the conversation we've got tonight. Lynn Nottage is the only woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for playwriting which is a sad fact actually. Nonetheless, a statement about the way her work forces you to sit up and pay attention. She is as much a journalist as a playwright, chronicling the American experience and focusing our art on big hard questions about opportunity, justice, and human rights. Yet, her work is sneakily optimistic. This season Lynn Nottage has three shows on stage.
She wrote the book for the musical MJ about Michael Jackson, she's making an operatic version of her popular early show Intimate Apparel, and her dark comedy Clyde's is up at Second Stage now. The show's story turns around a group of people trying to find work and build lives after getting out of prison. Starting this week, Second Stage is selling virtual tickets. For the final two weeks of the shows are on, people don't have to come to Broadway to see it, they can buy tickets and stream it at home, which was a choice made even before the COVID surge that is now causing a lot of canceled performances across Broadway.
I should say, I talked with Lynn just before this current surge, and we talked about the plane about her career exploring, the emotional terrain of class, race, and about the deep lessons she found in a sandwich.
Kai: Lynn, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Lynn Nottage: It's my pleasure, thank you.
Kai: You are as nearest, I can tell, the busiest person in theatre. [chuckles]
Lynn: I am, that is not a lie.
Kai: I'm really humbled that you have made this time for us. I guess before the pandemic, it was unheard of to offer streaming tickets to a Broadway show. Obviously, we all started doing unheard-of things with screens in the course of the pandemic. Why continue it now, this makes you quite an outlier in the industry, right?
Lynn: Well, I think that streaming really provided us with an exciting opportunity during COVID because so many of us were completely disconnected from our craft. Theatre is thought of as a live medium, bodies in the seat and exchange of energy. What streaming told us is that there's still ways to be in dialogue that are exciting. I think that once we got back in there, we realized that there's so many people who don't have access to the theatre. They're people who are immunocompromised, people who are older, people who are incarcerated, who want to come to the theatre. I think this is a really marvelous opportunity to continue to reach audiences that we didn't have access to before.
Kai: It's one of a few ways you've leaned into changing theatre. The way it does business in the course of the pandemic, you've been one of the more vocal artists in that regard that we can't go back to normal when we get back. How do you think it's going?
Lynn: Yes, there's some ways in which we're back and it's status quo, but I do think that a lot of really exciting things that have happened, that started during the pandemic, particularly since we were in the midst of this cultural reckoning and it really forced the industry to begin to interrogate their practices. Some people really stepped up to the table and began shifting the way their theatres look and some people is always a resistant to change. I can only speak anecdotally about the rooms that I'm in and the institutions that I'm interfacing with.
It feels as though they heard, that they're really trying to figure out how do we create a theatre that is more inclusive, that is more welcoming, that really is reflective of the diversity that we have in our culture.
Kai: That's an optimistic view, a refreshingly optimistic view. There's so much cynicism about change in general and so many spaces in our society.
Lynn: I'm an optimist, Kai. I am someone that in order to get up in the morning, I have to imagine that I'm going to be facing a day that was better than yesterday. I think I bring some of that optimism with me into the rooms, into the rehearsal spaces that I go into. Just speaking about some of the rooms that I'm in, we've had people in diversity, folks who've done training, which has sunk in. In one of the musical that I'm working on, it's probably one of the most beautiful companies that I've ever encountered. It's a large company and there's a lot of room for dissent and conflict, but because of the work that we've been doing, it really feels quite different than the space might've prior to the shutdown in COVID.
Kai: The musical is MJ the Musical and we'll return to that in some detail a little later on. Let's talk about Clyde's, let's talk about the show itself. It's a dark comedy set entirely in the kitchen of a truckstop diner run by a tyrant of a woman who only hires people who've been incarcerated. Because they struggle to get hired with a record anywhere else, they are dependent upon her supposed generosity as she lords over them. First off Lynn, this is not exactly a welcoming Broadway set up to me.
Kai: A comedy about formerly incarcerated people being abused, why was this on your heart right now?
Lynn: I've been thinking about this play for a long time. We originally premiered it in Minneapolis before COVID, it really comes about from the work and interviews that I was doing while I was researching my plays Sweat and Ruined in Pennsylvania. I came across so many people who were open and generous and who also happened to be formerly incarcerated. I began listening to their stories and many of them were incredibly heartbreaking. I want to figure out how can I tell this story about folks who are in limbo, in a liminal space who really feel stuck and trapped because of their circumstances.
Many of the folks that I interviewed had been out of prisons from anywhere from a week to a year and they had one thing in common, is that they kept hitting up against the wall when they were looking for opportunity, whether it'd be housing or whether it'd be jobs or whether it was reintegrating with their families. They hit that box that you have to check when you're going for employment that says you're incarcerated and it became this door that slammed in their faces. I was really interested in how do people who are in a liminal space really resurrect their lives, how do they get out?
I found this space which was Clyde's, a little box which is a sandwich shop on this very nondescript stretch of road in Brooks County, where I could grapple with some of these issues.
Kai: It often left me off kilter a bit, it's almost a screwball comedy at times, you know what I mean? Just laugh out loud, funny, almost slapstick. Also, as a viewer, you aren't sure whether you're supposed to be thinking something is funny sometimes. It's a little like, "Wait, oh, oh, maybe I shouldn't be laughing at this situation." In some ways, that's a hallmark of your work, isn't it? Do you agree with that?
Lynn: Yes, I do. One of the things that I love about humor is that it is disarming, it's one of those things that you just said, but laughter also is this fantastic conduit which you can filter through truths. I think that an audience when they're laughing, in some ways, they're more open, the mouth is open, the body is open and relaxed. I think that they're more ready and willing to engage with complicated ideas. I really love using humor and even in plays like Sweat and Ruined, which are considered to be tragedies, I think that humor is always threaded throughout it.
Kai: Yes, I like that idea, your mouth is literally open. You're laughing, you're ready to take things in. There was a lovely profile of you, I thought it was lovely, in T Magazine this fall. The writer made an astute point in this regard, that your work is always really accessible and familiar to audiences in form but incredibly challenging in content, do you agree with that?
Lynn: It's interesting, because she asked me, "Do you agree with that?" I had to think for a second. I think, yes, it is true and I actually embrace that. One of the things that I am super proud of is that my work really speaks to a cross-section of people that is it's accessible in ways that I feel some of my colleagues work, which is brilliant and challenging and wonderful, but it's often geared toward one very small group within the audience. What I feel I endeavor to do is to speak more broadly, and I think it has a lot to do with the way in which I was brought up.
I grew up in Brooklyn, in a multicultural community, and so I was in dialogue with lots of people the moment I stepped outside of my door. We were we're economically diverse, and we were racially diverse. I think of my audience as those folks who still live on my block.
Kai: Wow. I understand Second Stage is doing some things in terms of the audience to make sure that this play then is accessible to both currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks, is that right?
Lynn: Yes, we have this wonderful partnership with Art for Justice because one of the things that was really super important to me is that we reach the community that the play is directly about. I didn't want it to feel distant and remote. I wanted the folks who are actually going through some of the struggles that the folks on the stage are experiencing to be in the audience and so we've been able to invite people in throughout the run of the show, and folks are really responding and feel that the work is actually quite truthful and the play is definitely resonating with the formerly incarcerated. One of the other things that we endeavor to do because we have this opportunity to live stream is to take it to the prisons.
Kai: Yes. Wow. I can imagine Broadway Theatre brought to a prison via live stream that's a wonderful thing.
Lynn: I'm so excited. If we do anything throughout this run, that's one of the things I'm going to be most proud of is being able to reach a new audience that's literally shut-in.
Kai: Uzo Aduba is a revelation in this show, in Clyde's to me. She manages to be almost a caricature of an abusive boss on one hand while simultaneously lovable to the audience and having a bit of mystery to her. It struck me that she's herself formerly incarcerated, but she's the only one whose backstory you don't fully tell. What were you up to with her?
Lynn: I really was thinking of-- The character is called Clyde and she is seductively wicked. It's how I like to think of her is that we enjoy watching her be bad. In some way, she's the one character that doesn't change at all. She's the character who's completely intractable. For those who are in that liminal space, she represents all of the obstacles that they're going to face when they get out and she's constantly tearing them down and they have to figure out ways to resurrect their spirit and so I was interested in her as the mischief-maker, as that person, the gatekeeper.
Kai: She's damaged herself.
Lynn: She has very damaged herself, but she's the one character that's really not willing to do that kind of self-interrogation and in some cases, it's the way in which she survives. I'm very interested in characters who are morally ambiguous. People who on one hand are doing something that is apparently generous. She is giving these folks opportunities where no one else will, but once they have that opportunity, she is cruel and she is exacting, and she is punishing. I also think every one of us has had a boss at some point who has in some form or another tortured us.
Lynn: I think that Clyde is very relatable to a lot of people in the audience.
Kai: We got to talk about the sandwiches. The place is a sandwich shop, and the workers have this unreal reverence for making the perfect sandwich. I don't really even have a smart question about it, Lynn. What is the adoration of sandwiches?
Lynn: I was trying to find the perfect metaphor for creativity, for how people reconstitute their lives and the sandwich. I don't know why or how it came to me, but it's something that I love and food is the one thing that we can all unite around regardless of where we are. I began thinking of the sandwich really as a way in which people can reinvent themselves and the great thing about the sandwich and I think it's something that is said in the play is that it's one of the few things in which you can combine relatively ordinary ingredients and have this extraordinary culinary outcome.
Kai: In some ways, the metaphor worked for me too, the experience of watching the show like I didn't really fully appreciate it until the last bite. Until the sandwich was fully built.
Lynn: Oh, it's lovely. When you think you just think about savory and sweet and dissonant and harmonious and the sandwich really can be all of those things is that you can have a grilled cheese sandwich and you can put some chutney on it, and a slice of bacon and suddenly you have like a small piece of heaven.
Kai: Ultimately, I couldn't figure out whether it was a hopeful story or a dreadfully bleak one when at the end, and without giving away details, I'm still not sure where I landed emotionally on that. What about you is it a hopeful or pessimistic story?
Lynn: I think it's open-ended. I really invite the audience to be the final collaborator and take away what they will and there's some people who leave and see it as being incredibly healing and optimistic and hopeful and they're other people who leave and think, "Oh, my God, the cycle is just going to continue." I really think it's where one is in their life determines what ending they take away.
Kai: I suppose that sets up about where I'm in-
Kai: -my life.
Lynn: You're a glass half full or glass half empty kind of person.
Kai: Coming up, Lynn is among the artists who have been credited with foreshadowing the Trump era. I'll ask her about the research she did for her Pulitzer prize-winning play Sweat. I'm Kai wright. This is The United States of Anxiety. We'll be right back with more of my conversation with playwright Lynn Nottage.
Hey everybody, I just want to take a second to say thank you. You listening right now and all of you who listen to us every single week, just thank you for spending time with us when, let's be real, there is so much out there to deal with, so much out there to listen to in the world right now and you choose to spend time with us, so thank you for that. Thanks not only for hanging out with us but also talking to us. It's such a joy to hear from you whether it's a voice memo, email, tweet, call on the live show, whatever it is, this is honestly and truly what makes the work worth it.
Not just that I get to go meet smart people and bring them back to you but also that you then get to feedback to me and tell us what's going on in your lives from your corners of the world. Looking ahead, we're excited to start even more ways to be in conversation with you so keep an eye out for that, and please, please, please do just keep sending us those messages. Until then, on behalf of everyone at The United States of Anxiety, thank you and happy New Year.
Kai: Welcome back, I'm Kai Wright. This is The United States of Anxiety. This week I'm talking with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Lynn Nottage, about her remarkable career and the multiple shows she has helped create for this season. Her current show Clyde's was based on research she did in Reading, Pennsylvania, a Rust Belt town that has experienced a great deal of pain with the end of the manufacturing economy. That research also informed her earlier play Sweat, for which she won one of her two Pulitzers. Sweat debuted in 2015 and made it to Broadway two years later and by that point, the story felt prescient.
You're thinking a lot about working people and the cross-currents of race and gender within this particular class of people, a group that has always been fetishized in all these weird ways in American politics. I think it's rightly been said that Sweat foreshadowed the Trump era in that regard. Was that on your mind when you wrote it?
Lynn: I actually get asked that question a lot. I could never have foreseen Trump coming. I don't think any of us, in our wildest imagination, could have imagined that we would have had four years with Donald Trump as president, but what I did see, when I was doing a lot of the interviews in the Rust Belt was the level of disaffection, particularly from working-class white people who felt like the American dream was slowly slipping between their fingers.
Rather than interrogating their own practices and thinking about how they were contributing to their own downfall, they were pointing fingers and beginning to blame others and I thought that their disaffection was beginning to metastasize and turn dark and ugly.
Kai: What was that owing to? You were observing people. How would you diagnose it?
Lynn: I can tell you very directly how I would diagnose it is that one of the questions that I always asked when I was in Reading, Pennsylvania, is how would you describe your town now? People would inevitably say, "Reading was." I thought, "Oh, we have a really big problem because we have a group of people who can't imagine themselves in present tense and in future tense is that they're always looking backwards." There's a line in Sweat, which a character named Stan says nostalgia is a disease and it's slowly eating away at us. I think that what I found is a lot of people were holding on to American ideal that no longer existed or didn't ever really exist.
Kai: Lynn's new show, Clyde's is a bit of a follow-up to this conversation she began out of her research in Reading because one character is actually the only white character in the show is someone who we first met on stage in Sweat.
Lynn: I have one character named Jason who is the most unresolved character in Sweat when the play ended. I felt like there were still things that I want to investigate with his character. He somehow wandered into this particular play and he stayed. He is the outlier in Clyde's. He enters the play in the third scene and he's somewhat of a disruptor. In Sweat, he commits a very heinous hate crime. The question is whether someone who has done that can actually be forgiven. I think that when he enters the sandwich shop, he enters with a great deal of shame.
I was just interested in how that moves through his body and whether someone like that really can find a new way through the world and be transformed. Is he going to be able to get out of that space or is he perpetually going to be trapped?
Kai: He was such a powerful character. It's really interesting to think about then if you're saying that as you talk to people to develop Sweat, you heard all of this past tense people who couldn't think of themselves in present tense, and then Clyde's is so about imagining a future.
Lynn: Right. I just felt at least on a very personal level after dwelling in the world of Sweat, which is dark and it's not optimistic that I personally needed to go someplace where I felt hope, where I felt that the characters who were experiencing real hardships had the opportunity to transcend and to forge community and to touch something that was beautiful. In this case, it's a sandwich. For me, on a very personal level as an artist, I felt that I needed to share at least my hope and my optimism with audiences and hope that in some ways they would respond to it and be in conversation with what I was writing.
Kai: Why this interest in class in this way? You really, as an artist are spending a lot of time in this space of where class and race, and gender come together. Why is that something you're drawn to you think?
Lynn: It's interesting because I recently had a revelation about this because I was just like, "Why am I so interested, why do I constantly want to tell stories about working people?" Number one, I'm a working person. I don't think that folks often think of artists as working people. We're folks who've experienced a lot of economic hardship and we work very hard for very little reward. There's a real connection between what we do as artists, craftspeople, and folks who are working in factories and working for minimum wage. We understand that. That's just the bottom line. I recall when I was growing up, we had some hardship in my life and our circumstances changed very, very quickly.
I watched my mother who was this incredible woman having to work 24/7. She'd get up at six in the morning, she'd be out the door and she didn't finish working until 9 and 10 o'clock at night. That as a child really makes an imprint. I think I wanted to tell her story and the story of my grandparents and the people who I encountered who were working people. I thought I don't see those stories that often. I don't see the people like my family drawn in ways that are three-dimensional and compassionate.
Kai: You grew up in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn, you said earlier, that's where that family was. If I'm not mistaken, you attended the High School of Music and Art, right?
Lynn: Yes, I did.
Kai: A true New York local. What's your relationship to the city? True New York locals have quite a relationship to the history of this city. What about yourself?
Lynn: I love this city. I feel sometimes like a small-town girl [chuckles] because I haven't for any length of time lived anywhere else. I actually live in the house that I grew up in. I think that the city is just my lifeblood. I love the complexity of it. I love the diversity of it. I love that they're arts that are so accessible and that every single day I get on the subway, there's something that happens that blows my mind.
Kai: Do you remember when you first decided I want to turn to the arts? I have things to say that I can only say through art.
Lynn: I was really fortunate to have parents from the time I was very young who are deeply invested in the arts. If you come to my home, there were always incredible works of art that were on the walls. They took me to see theater and they took me to see music. When I was very young, I just had this really delicious moment when I was watching Summer of Soul, that documentary that Questlove made. In one of the first few frames, I saw my mother in the crowd enjoying music, and I thought that's who she was and that's who she--
Kai: Wait, literally?
Kai: Oh, wow.
Lynn: It was really, really cool. I haven't seen my mother in motion in 24 years. It was just like this Easter egg. It was this wonderful thing, but seeing her just reminded me of what they gave me. You talk about living in the city and what they did is they gave me the city. I grew up at a time when, as kids, we were like free-range chickens, opened up the doors and just went outside and he didn't come back in until the street lamps were on. We explored and thankfully we weren't just playing out in the street, which is we did, but we went to movie theaters and we went to the theater and we went and we heard music in the park and there was this kind of vibrancy that I wanted to keep alive for the rest of my life.
I think that's why I make art and that's why I make theater.
Kai: You had that background, you went on and got degrees in Brown, in Yale drama school. Then you got a job at Amnesty International after school. I wonder was that just one of those out-of-school jobs or does that tell us something about the foundation of your work?
Lynn: No. I think I got that job for very intentional reasons. When I was at the Yale School of drama, it was during a very difficult moment, and our country-- It was the height of the AIDS epidemic. It was the height of the crack epidemic. I was watching classmates die, not only from age but from drug addiction and suddenly the notion of writing a play felt very decadent to me. I really thought I have to do something. I have to be in conversation with this culture in some other way. It was really a struggle for me to figure out how as an artist, I could affect any kind of change. I deliberately looked for a job where I could do something that felt tangible.
I began working at Amnesty International as the press officer during a key moment in human rights history. I look at those years that I was there as my second graduate school experience. I was there when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, which was an extraordinary moment. I was there when the Berlin Wall came down. I was there when the Guildford Four got out of prison. It felt as though human rights work was really doing, one of the things that we did when I was at Amnesty is really introduced the notion of human rights as the language of detente. Prior to that, when presidents and prime ministers sat down, human rights wasn't necessarily something that was placed on the table as an issue.
Kai: Certainly that background makes me think of your show Ruined which you won your first Pulitzer prize for in 2009. It's set in the Democratic Republic of Congo among a group of women who are trying to survive the ravages of war, including rape. Again, not exactly an easy setup for a night at the theater, but ultimately I see and others have said it's a story of resilience. I just want to prompt you to talk about that, this idea of human resilience in your work. In that show in particular.
Lynn: Well, in 2004, 2005, when the war in the Democratic Republic was raging-- As we know that war ended up taking like 6.5 million lives. It was the largest armed conflict since World War II and yet it was not really registering with people outside of Africa. I went with the director, Kate Woosky, and my husband to East Africa and began interviewing women who were fleeing-- That are in conflict and one of the things that we found is that all of them had been raped and had been abused. It was something that I wasn't necessarily reading in the newspapers. I thought, "This is a story that I want to tell." Originally, we had gone there to do a modern adaptation of Mother Courage, which is Bertolt Brecht's play. When we began interviewing women and hearing their stories, we realized that there was a story that was unique to Africa. To answer your question, I would sit with some of these women and they tell me stories which were absolutely heartbreaking about what they went through. What I really clung to was the way in which they were able to find hope and optimism and smile. I saw with embedded in their stories is the story, this incredible resilience. One of the questions that I used to always ask them is, what do you think of when you think of the words mother courage? They'd say, "Yes, mother courage." They'd hold those words in their mouths and repeat them.
I thought, yes, the story I'm telling is about mother courage, is about resilience. I went home and I wrote Ruined and I know a lot of the critics asked, why do I end the play which is about something that's so dark, which is gender-specific human rights abuses with optimism. I thought, because that's what I experienced is that no matter what these women went through, they had mother courage, is that they were going to persevere and they were going to resurrect their lives in beautiful ways.
Kai: It's so interesting because that was the truth because optimism is actually the truth, which is so hard to wrap your head around in today's world.
Lynn: Absolutely. I think of just the experiences of us as Black folks in America over the last 400 years. What we have is this incredible ability to reach for optimism and we're incredibly resilient. I think that's not recognized enough.
Kai: It's really not. I often say, easily the most optimistic forward-looking progressive people in this country are Black people and immigrants. For all to talk about, we're supposed to be victims. We are easily the biggest believers in a better future.
Lynn: Amen to that. It's so true.
Kai: I'm Kai Wright. I'm talking with playwright Lynn Nottage about her remarkable career. Coming up, I ask Lynn about the Space Black artists and Black women, in particular, are making for themselves in the world of commercial theater. Stay with us.
Kai: This Broadway season opened with an unprecedented number of shows by Black writers and directors. Shows spanning everything from experimental dramas to feel-good comedies. The trend went beyond Broadway. The Metropolitan Opera mounted its first-ever show written by a Black composer. In the world of commercial theater, it's been a banner season. Before this season began, Lynn Nottage had been one of the most vocal artists demanding just this change. I was curious what she thinks about the progress. We began our conversation talking about your role as a change agent in the theater world. I want to come back to that.
The season Broadway returned with all of these shows by Black artists, and it's the latest space to get a pat on the back for taking Black people seriously as human beings.
Kai: Let alone as leaders and artists, how do you feel about it? Do you feel like, "Oh yes, this has been real advancement this season?"
Lynn: Number one, I have to say, it is a remarkable moment and I hold onto this moment because I share it with artists who I respect particularly young artists who I think are incredible storytellers. I think it's so easy for us to dismiss this moment as being a blip, but these are people who are making art on the highest level and they belong on Broadway.
I'm really excited no matter how we've gotten there, that we are there. Hopefully, audiences will continue to come and support our work. It really is about whether we can build audiences and demonstrate commercially that there's people who want to support our storytelling. Broadway is very different than not for-profit world.
Kai: Right. It's a lot of money to put up a show and you got to make money.
Lynn: Yes. Broadway unfortunately is about the bottom line. Now, two, three months into the Broadway season, our shows are selling and people are coming to them and they're loving them. What we're demonstrating is that there is room for a diversity of Black voices because every show is very different in that we're not a monolith and that we really not only deserve to be here, but we're enjoying being here. It's going to be really difficult to kick us out.
Lynn: You know what? I've gotten--
Kai: Shouldn't have let us in if you didn't want us to stay because we not going to no place. Do you think audiences are changing or gatekeepers are changing or both, or is that the wrong way to think about it?
Lynn: Well, I think that gatekeepers are certainly changing. I can tell you for Clyde's at Second Stage that Khady Kamara, who is now the Executive Manager I believe, or Executive Director of Second Stage is an African-born woman. She's come in with a lot of big plans. That theater is not going to be going backwards because it has a real shift in its leadership. That's super exciting. I know on MJ that our producer who Lia Vollack, it was really important for her to bring Black folks onto the producing team who are being trained. They're the next generation of folks who are going to be producing on Broadway.
I do feel that there are real tangible things that are happening, that are going to be exciting and we may not feel the reverberations of that this year but in two and three years we will.
Kai: The conversation makes me think a bit about your show Meet Vera Stark, which is one I actually haven't seen sadly, but I heard you talking about it with my colleague, Allison Stewart on WNYC show, all of it. You were talking about the ways that the archetypes of Black women on stage have changed over the years. There's the audience, there's the gatekeepers, but then there's the actual presentation of Black people on the stage. I'm curious, what is that change you've seen over the years in terms of how the way Black women, in particular, are presented has shifted.
Lynn: Number one, I think there's a diversity of Black women who are having the opportunity to put their truths on the stage. That ultimately is going to change who we see and the manifestations of blackness that are presented on the stage. I think that that's a huge shift. You think about the artists who are storytellers like Dominique Morisseau and Kator Hall and Susan Laurie Parks and younger writers like Antoinette Nwandu and Jocelyn Bioh. I mean, the fact that I could continue to go on for another 10 minutes means that we're all bringing our truths to the stage in very different ways.
That is a big shift, but I do recall many years ago speaking with a dramaturg that when a regional theater and specifically it was about Ruined, which is as we spoke before set in a Democratic Republic Congo and having the dramaturg say, "This is great, but our audiences really need a character that they can connect with." I thought, "Excuse-- It took me aback. I thought, "Are you telling me that your audience-- What she was really saying is that her white audience couldn't connect with my Black characters and in particular, my Black women characters.
Kai: Your Black woman self.
Lynn: My Black woman self. I thought, "No, I am not going to make this easier for you because this is my truth and it's time for you sit to sit back and hear it for a moment and figure out how you can join me rather than me constantly having to join you."
Kai: Well, it makes me think-- Because I'm thinking about your optimism and it makes me think about the show Intimate Apparel, which I also haven't seen, but I cannot wait to get to see the operatic version of it. It's now, as I understand, one of the most produced plays in American theater. This show by a Black woman has certainly forced a whole lot of people well beyond Broadway to relate to a Black experience.
Lynn: Hopefully, I wrote, Intimate Apparel after my mom died and I wanted to write something that if she were going to a theater with a group of her girlfriends, that she would really enjoy and I put my heart and soul into the play and I think that audiences recognize that truth. That's why it's been so popular and it centers this character named Esther who's a seamstress in the turn of the century in 1904 America. Who's trying to figure out who she is in a world that has rendered her invisible.
I think that it's a struggle that I've had as an artist. I think that in part I was telling not only Esther story, my mother's story but my own story.
Kai: I read somewhere that you were inspired by a photo of your grandmother or great-grandmother may be working as a seamstress in New York.
Lynn: Yes, my great-grandmother came to New York at the turn of the century, in this case from Barbados and she was one of eight sisters and she came at 18, not really knowing anyone. She worked as a seamstress and over the course of the next 20 years, she was able one by one to bring all of her sisters to US which I find to be incredibly remarkable that she just had the tenaciousness and the wherewithal to transform her entire family. What you were mentioning is that when my grandmother was moving out of her home, I literally found stuck in a family circle magazine a photograph of her and my great-grandmother.
It's the very first time I'd ever seen that woman and I realized that there were all these stories that my family had never shared with me and because they didn't either deem them important enough to share or they didn't think about legacy and preserving our own personal archive. I went about trying to piece together the life of my great-grandmother in New York City in the turn of century and that became Intimate Apparel. In some ways, it was me really trying to navigate my own ancestry and fill in some of the blanks that existed there.
Kai: Like I said, I bring this show up because it has become such a staple of American theater and I just wonder what you take from that as someone who has been told in the past your work isn't relatable, you need to adapt it.
Lynn: Oh, number one, I reject that notion and because clearly, the proof is in the pudding with Intimate Apparel, but I think that audiences ultimately respond to truth regardless of who's telling that story. I think that we have the expansiveness to be able to invite in a multitude of perspectives. I think that one of the things that has been an obstacle is the gatekeepers, is that their belief that audiences won't respond and I reject that notion. The more and more stories that are out there, you just look at television the way it's been diversified in film, it's been diversified that there are audiences for all kinds of storytelling.
Kai: You are a prolific writer. As anyone listening to this conversation will gather, we could go on and on and on about all the shows you've written and you have yet another show out this season, you wrote the book for The Musical MJ about Michael Jackson which I have to assume is a tricky project, to say the least. This is a jukebox musical, which is to say it's supposed to be a feel-good thing about a beloved star but it necessarily deals with the world of child abuse that has come to define Michael's life too. Why did you take this on?
Lynn: It's interesting. Someone asked me that question the other night, and I realized that I have been working on trying to tell the story of Michael Jackson since 2013. Which is when I first began drafting an outline for a musical, not this particular musical, but something prior to that. I think in part I've been and drawn to Michael in part because of his complexities and one of the phrases that I cling to is you must sustain the complexities, but also because my life so thoroughly tracks with him, his music is the soundtrack of my life. The very first album that I owned was ABC, my favorite album when I was in high school, was Off the Wall.
I played that album until literally, I couldn't play it anymore because there were so many scratches and grooves in it that every other song would pop and stop or repeat.
Kai: Because you've been doing too much jumping around--
Lynn: Yes big around. Yes. When I got to college, it was Thriller and we'd have thriller dance parties and so just embedded in my creative DNA is Michael Jackson and his music. That is not easy to let go. I think that I really wanted to create something, a musical that allows people who have this love for Michael Jackson to really process that and understand who he was as an artist.
Kai: He's such a part of the Black story. Anybody, either of our generations, he was just an icon of Black success and Black art and Black joy and so it is a hard thing to process for us to now be at this stage in his story.
Lynn: Yes, exactly. Michael Jackson also gave many of us permission to create in different ways. Now we think of him as a king of pop, but he was a rule breaker as an artist and he redefined the notion of what Black music could be. I think that conversation is an important one.
Kai: You're certainly one of the most successful playwrights in theater, perhaps the history of theater, and yet you told The Times you don't want to be known as a playwright, which I guess maybe it's only as a playwright.
Lynn: I do want to be known as a playwright
Kai: Okay. Maybe that wasn't enough for you that you don't want to be pigeonholed that, and maybe this is a reflection of my limitations, limits of my own ambitions, but it is difficult for me to wrap my run around the idea that your ambition stretch beyond playwriting.
Lynn: I'm really interested in different ways in which we can tell stories. I think that a lot of times the proscenium is really limiting and doesn't necessarily allow for the complexities and the diverse ways in which want to bring our characters to life. I'm always trying to reach for new ways to reach audiences because a lot of times theater is prohibitively expensive and it takes real effort for someone to go online, buy that ticket and then get in their car and come into town but I thought, well, there must be other ways to bring theater more easily to folks in their communities, streaming is one way, but also I'm very interested in multimedia and meeting the folks where there are.
How can we create theater in laundromats and in parking lots and in spaces that people are so used to going to? They don't even realize that they're engaging with art or colliding with art. That's what I think I was talking about.
Kai: What's on your heart for the future. I dare I ask not to reveal what you think you're working on, but just what do you-- So much of your art you're chronicling the American experience, what are you thinking about? What do you feel like needs to be chronicled?
Lynn: I think that I'm going to actually move smaller and tell more personal stories because I feel that I've spent a lot of time looking outward. This is a moment that I think has come about because of COVID and having more time for self-reflection. I want to tell the story of my family, I want to tell stories of my friend-group and stay a little closer to home. That's what I think, it's like not reaching as far, but reaching deeper.
Kai: And you think that's because of the experience of COVID for you?
Lynn: I do think it's because of experience of COVID. I for the first time spent a lot of time meditating, and still because I'm not used to someone who's being still, it's like, I'm a workaholic, I work 24/7, but what COVID did for the first time was allow me to sit and think, and I suddenly had room for a lot of thoughts and emotions that had always been there, but because there was so much noise, I wasn't really able to access them. I want to explore that more deeply.
Kai: We will all quite look forward to what comes from that stillness and silence for you. Thank you so much not only for this time but just for all your work and your contribution to theater.
Lynn: Thank you so much, Kai. I listen to your show and I really love your show, and I'm super delighted to be here with you.
Kai: This is The United States of Anxiety if you missed something tonight or you just want to catch up on previous shows, you can subscribe whatever you get your podcast or you can go to wnyc.org/anxiety for our full archive, and if anything Lynn Nottage said just made you just want to stand up and shout, do it into your phone, record it as a voice memo and send it to me. Really, we love to hear from you even on the weeks we don't take your calls live. Send your voice memo with any thoughts the show sparked for you and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kai: Since Lynn has us thinking about working people, a reminder that a lot of people's work goes into this show each week. To name a few Kevin Bristow and Milton Ruiz work with the soundboard for the live show. Jared Paul mixes and sound designs our podcast version. Hannah Brown wrote our catchy theme song and it's performed by the Outer Borough Brass band. Regina de Heer is the producer you hear asking people questions at the top of the show every week, and if you've been booked as a guest here, you've certainly talked to her. Kousha Navidar is our digital mastermind and honestly, the one going through all those voice memos you send, so thanks Kousha.
Karen Frillmann helped me create the show in the first place and is our careful editor each week. Me you know, I'm Kai Wright. You can catch me on Twitter at Kai_wright, and I'll talk to you here next Sunday. Thanks for spending time today.
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