LYNN NOTTAGE: I thought, well, if I'm gonna hit this wall, I might as well be hitting it, um, you know, hitting my head up against it in ways that are... going to feed my spirit.
This is Death, Sex & Money, the show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
Lynn Nottage is a big deal playwright. She's won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. But the start of this year was unlike any other for her. Three of her shows were simultaneously in production in New York: a play, a musical, and an opera.
LN: I liken it to, sort of, a creative marathon-
ANNA SALE: Mm.
LN: -in which I've spent my entire life preparing for this moment in which I could juggle three different pieces, and not lose my mind. And whe-whe-when I, when I was looking at my calendar, anticipating it and I thought, "Oh my God, how am I going to accomplish this?" And when I was in the midst of it, I thought, "Okay, I've been working my entire life for this moment." It's just a lot of meditation and breathing and, um, really being in the moment. That's something that I learned through this process, is that when I was in the room, I was in the room with that piece 100%, and when I left the room, um, and went to the next, I was in that next room with all of myself. I was very good about compartmentalizing. Otherwise, I think I would've lost my mind.
Lynn’s plays take place all over the world and in different eras, but most of them focus on the lives of everyday people. Sweat, one of the plays that earned her a Pulitzer, is about a working class community in Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. Her work Intimate Apparel tells the story of a seamstress in 1905 New York… it’s based on the life of Lynn’s great-grandmother.
Lynn grew up in New York, and we zoomed from her childhood home in Brooklyn. She moved back there as an adult, to help take care of her mother when she was at the end of her life.
Lynn: I always thought when I left Brooklyn that I was never going to come back, but it became really apparent when she was ill that she needed some assistance. So I moved home in 1997 and I've been here ever since. And so I'm sitting in the living room, um, where I spent much of my childhood.
AS: Huh. Was it a living room space when you were a child?
LN: It was a living room space when I was a child. And, until very recently, it was like a museum, a little shrine to my parents, and during COVID, I felt that I was too close to the ghosts and decided that it really needed to be refreshed.
AS: Oh, interesting. You know, I was wondering about that, like, to-to live one's adult life in their childhood home. You know, there's the approach of, like, I need to redecorate and renovate immediately to make it my own, or there's the much more, uh, piecemeal approach.
LN: Well, until a few years ago, my father was here with us, and so we were very reluctant to change anything because he was super happy with the living room even though the furniture was becoming quite frayed, and we had these threadbare rugs that were an embarrassment, but he did not wanna change a single thing. And he-he died a few years ago and we-we were reluctant to change anything immediately, but slowly throughout COVID we just felt like it was time.
AS: Mm. What was that process like? How'd you approach it?
LN: You know, it's-it's-- That's such an interesting process. It's like, where do you begin when you have to give a space that you've been in your entire life an overhaul? And we decided that we would begin with the rugs because they were the most unsightly thing in the room.
AS: You used the word embarrassing, I, I noticed, yeah. [laughter]
LN: Yes. Yeah. I was-I was very embarrassed. People come in and I always make excuses for the rugs. It's like, "Oh, you know, they're antiques, and we don't wanna change any-anything."
AS: I'm curious what it was like for you when you left home to go to college, um, because I find that to be a, sort of, pivotal moment of, kind of, identity formation or identity reinforcement, you know, as you're introducing yourself to a new community of people, apart from your family of origin. Do you remember that time as-as having a sense of clarity about theater is-is what I'm gonna do here?
LN: Um, I think I left high school... beginning to contemplate theater as a potential... career path. And I say that with some hesitancy because when I got to Brown University, I was pre-med, and I, the, the majority of my classes were, were science and math classes, and so I was forced to use a completely different part of my brain. But what I think that did is it, um, forced me when I was outside of class to find other creative outlets for my energy, and that went into playwriting. And I didn't know how to put up a play at that time. And during college, I figured it out. I figured out how to round up a director, and a group of actors, and put up shows, and I did that throughout my college years, you know, by hook or by-by crook. I think is that the phrase?
AS: Yeah, yeah.
LN: Oh, yeah.
AS: When did you decide you weren't going to go to med school?
LN: I know the moment exactly. It was when I was taking organic chemistry, and, um, I took an exam, and I knew that I didn't do well on the exam, but I didn't know how badly I had actually done. And after the exams were graded, there was a professor, he used to write a bell curve on the blackboard of where everyone had placed in the exam. And at the-the far end of one bell curve was my score, which was 32. [chuckles] And at the other end, it was like someone who's 99. And it was realizing that I was at the very bottom of the class, even though I had put every ounce of energy into taking that test, that I knew that I was not meant to be in the sciences and a doctor.
AS: Wow, that sounds like a heartbreaking moment to look up and see that.
LN: It actually was not.
AS: Huh! Interesting.
LN: It was not. I mean, I-I actually was immensely relieved when I let go of being, um, a pre-med student because it's never- it was never my intention. It was something that was thrust upon me, and it's not something that I personally would've ever chose. And when I realized that I didn't have the enthusiasm and the wherewithal to do it, I was actually quite relieved.
AS: Yeah, that's why you remember the exact score so many years later. [laughs]
LN: I do! I remember that, I remember that exact score. And what I remember about the courses because it was one of those big lecture halls. Um, and he wrote that bell curve, and, um, I was sitting in the very back row with one of my friends, and I remember her whispering to me, "I wonder who has the lowest score." And you had to march down all these steps to get your little blue booklet, and you'd look in, and then you'd close it, and then you'd march back up.
LN: And [chuckles] I remember just marching down looking and seeing my 32, closing the booklet, marching back up, and sitting there back, um, next to my friend, and my friend said, "You must have rocked that because you look so confident." And it's that moment that I realized that I was a theatre artist... is because I could get the lowest score in my class and she was convinced that I had done well.
AS: [laughs] Did you have to-- Uh, was it a conversation with your parents telling them that you were changing direction?
LN: You-you know, it wasn't a big conversation with my parents, but it was a conversation with the university because I had been given a scholarship very specifically, um, to be pre-med and so I had to write a letter to, um, a class of women from Pembroke who- that had sponsored me, you know, informing them that I was switching my major and my scholarship was revoked. And so, I guess in that instance, I did have to tell my parents, and I ended up having to take out a larger, um, student loan than I anticipated.
AS: Oh, so there was a real financial cost to-
AS: -this choice.
LN: Yeah, so there were consequences and I ended up working-working a couple of jobs. I worked maintenance on the weekends at the university cleaning the dorms and I wo-- I worked at a sandwich and pizza shop that was on campus, um, in the evenings, I think, I worked something from like 9:00 to midnight, and I worked at Wendy's. I just did everything possible to make up for the loss of that scholarship so that I could stay in school.
AS: Did that make it difficult to be involved in making shows?
LN: Um, yeah, I imagine on some level, but it's funny you-you asked that question, but it didn't seem difficult at the time, I think that for me, the making of theater was really the place of joy, and so it didn't feel like a burden. It felt like a place of escape.
AS: Did you end up with more loans than you would have otherwise, or-or did you pay it off while you were working?
LN: No, I mean, I-I-- It took me 20 years to pay off all my loans for-
LN: -for college and graduate school. And I still remember [chuckles] the-the last phone call I got from a woman named Mrs. Thom-Thompson at Brown University who used to always call me when I was late in my payments, and she's like, "Lynn, you owe money." I'm like, "I know. I know." And she gave me that last phone call and she's like, "Hello, Lynn. This is Mrs. Thompson." And I'm like, "Oh my God, she's calling me again." She's like, "You owe $2."
Lynn: And she's like, "It's on me." [laughs]
AS: Mrs. Thompson!
Lynn: And I was like, "Thank you." But, I've never had a call that felt quite as liberating as that call that, um, declared that I was done paying my college loans.
AS: I-I wanna ask you about the time in your life after college and grad school when you had moved back to New York City. When you first made that move after going to-to the Yale School of Drama, um, for graduate school, what-what did you picture- what did you hope was gonna unfold in the next couple of years for you?
LN: Um, in all honesty, my time at the Yale School of Drama was very difficult and fraught. When I graduated, I was only the second Black woman to graduate from the Yale School of Drama as a playwright. And so I was beginning to feel very much like, um, my voice was not really welcome in the community. And that s-said, I also was at the Yale School of Drama during a very fraught moment. Um, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic, it was the height of the crack epidemic. I was watching many of my classmates and my professors get sick and die, or succumb to drug addiction. And it was really hard to stay focused on writing and figure out, "Well, why am I writing and w-what is it that I wanna write about?" when there was so much, um, trauma, um, that's happening all around me. And so when I graduate, I s-- I s-- I sold my laptop, and I hesitate even calling it a laptop because I think it wasn't a laptop. I think it was like a word processor. Um, and I went to work at, um, Amnesty International in h--, in human rights because I felt like I wanted to do something that in some way spoke to the moment and that would have genuine impact.
AS: Yeah. But I hear you saying that there was, uh, uh, both because of the difficulty and the inhospi-- the- how-how challenging and-and unwelcomed you felt at Yale and then also that there was this crisis, uh, multi-multifaceted crisis happening that you were, kind of, turning over the question of, like, whether making art was enough of service, was enough.
Lynn: Yeah. That, I mean, that was definitely the dil-dilemma that I faced when I graduated, is, um, w-whether as an a-a-artist I really had the ability to affect any genuine change.
AS: You sold your word processor. You're like i--
LN: I so--
AS: It was just to say, "I-I'm taking a break from trying to do this kind of creative work."
LN: Yeah, and I thought if I let it go, then the temptation wouldn't be there. And it also was a way of committing to something else. I'm like, "I am literally going to let go of, um, being a playwright in this moment, and see whether I can make a go of doing something else," something that at the moment felt much more urgent and necessary to the culture.
AS: Did the temptation, as you call it, did it go away?
LN: The temptation never went away. And also I think by immersing myself in the human rights community and, um, trying to amplify some of the human rights stories, what I realized is that fundamentally I am a storyteller, and that there are ways in which I can use the tools that I have at hand to, um, engage with the culture in a more creative way.
For four years, Lynn was the National Press Officer for Amnesty International in New York, and that was challenging for her in a different way. It was the early '90s and she was focusing a lot on death penalty cases.
LN: The government, our government was stepping up the use of capital punishment. And, um, I found myself unprepared to deal with the number of people who were dying and-and, um, I-I felt that I needed time to step a- step away.
LN: And I remember sitting in my office contemplating leaving and I called my mother and I said, "I think I wanna go. I-I need to quit my job." And she said, "Okay." And I was like, "What do you mean okay?" She's like, "Okay." And she really gave me that permission that I need-needed to let go and begin to pursue my life as an artist again. And one of the funny things that ha-happened is that I had this corner office. It had a window that never opened and I had piles and piles of papers next to the window and I thought after I wrote my resignation letter, uh, "I'm gonna open that window." And I got a knife and, like, chipped away all of the-the paint that was, um, holding the window shut and I opened the window and everything in my office got sucked out.
LN: I was like, "Oh my God!" I can't even describe it. Like, it was like this vacuum that sucked out all of the paper on my desk, and I was like, "That was God's way of saying you made the the right decision."
Coming up, Lynn's big risk pays off.
LN: It's like, I could go to the library and I could, you know, spend a full day in the library as opposed to, you know, spending one hour and rushing back home. It just, I think it really cracked open, um, the world for me in ways that it hadn't been prior to that, because I was so... anxious about just piecing together a living.
In our latest episode, we asked you about your relationship dilemmas, and panelists Heather Havrilesky, George Civeris, and Tuck Woodstock answered questions about coping with infidelity, getting ready for marriage, and more. A listener named Sarah told us that she appreciated hearing about nonmonogamy in a way she usually doesn’t:
SARAH: I'm part of an established web of polyamorous relationships called a polycule, we're going on five years now. I'm so hungry for representation that's not either, “I'm trying out this wild thing,” or “my spouse and I opened up to save our failing marriage.” Polyamory works so well for me and for my partners. We all chose this freely. Some of us in the context of relationships that were previously monogamous, and some of us as single people, and we all intend to keep doing it. It's not just a lark or a rebound for us, it's just our life. One that's joyful, and boring, and frustrating, and sublime like anybody else's.
Thanks for sharing, Sarah. And for those of you who are also in long-term, non-monogamous relationships, what types of stories are you craving? And what do you want to share? Tell us in an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll share what we hear in our newsletter.
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This is Death, Sex, & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
Lynn Nottage was 28 when she left her job at Amnesty International, and cashed in her 401(k) to focus on writing.
Lynn Nottage: I think I was just young enough not to understand the consequences of cashing in my 401(k). I think that now I'd be like, "Lynn, what'd you do?" But back then, it just is like, you have some money in the bank, spend it.
Anna Sale: Yeah, invest it!
LN: Yeah. And so, yeah, it was an investment in itself. I mean, I don't think I contemplated it for more than five. Before I thought this is the right decision. So like, this is an investment in my future it's money that was put away, you know, for my retirement, but I may not get to retirement unless I use it.
For the next four years, Lynn wrote and produced plays, and then her mother was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. And as it progressed, her mother asked her to move home.
LN: I think it was immensely difficult for her to finally, um, admit to me that she was as sick as she was, but also to ask me to come home. She-- I remember the phone call in which she said, "I don't think that I'm gonna be able to do this by myself." And I'm like, "Of course, I will move back to take care of you." And she was-- It's very frightening. It's a-it's a terrifying disease because you slowly are surrendering all aspects of yourself, you know, beginning with your mobility and eventually you lose the ability to speak and so I think that she-she was terrified of going through this by herself. Even though she had my father, I think she really needed my presence, um, there, um, to get her through it.
Lynn took time away from writing, and focused on caregiving. Her first child was born a month after her mother died, in 1997.
Then in 2003, Lynn premiered Intimate Apparel. It's become one of her best-known works, and it propelled Lynn to a new level of recognition and then a major windfall. In 2007, Lynn won a MacArthur Fellowship, and also known as a Genius Grant. Suddenly, she had half a million dollars she could use any way she wanted.
LN: When I got the call, I was actually on the telephone with, um, with another playwright, um, Katori Hall who I was mentoring. And I was just lamenting the fact that I was looking at my calendar and there was nothing on it. And I'm like, "I don't know how I'm gonna survive the-the next year." And so when I got that call, it literally changed my life because it gave me, suddenly, the freedom to write without the burden of anxiety that I had been carrying for so long. You know, every moment I had to think about, like, um, can I take this job? Or, you know, am I going to have rent for the next month? And at the time I had a child, and, and it's like, I was contemplating paying childcare, and so many other issues. And so when I got that call, it just alleviated so much of the anxiety that I realized had been a constant companion for many, many, many years.
AS: That's amazing. [chuckles] Like-like I'm not sure there's that many calls like that in people's financial lives. Like, what a moment, you know?
LN: It was a huge moment. I can't even articulate how big it was. You know, not just the fact that it was an immense honor and this incredible moment of validation, but that it literally, in some ways saved us.
AS: When did you-- How old were you when you met your husband?
LN: I met my husband in college, but we met because we were taking the GREs to go to graduate school, and we were the only two students, I believe, at Brown University who didn't sign up in enough time to actually take the test on campus, and so we had to drive an hour away to Kingston, Rhode Island. [laughter] And, um, I didn't know how to drive, and realized that there was no bus that would get me to the GREs in time unless I spent the night in Kingston and I thought, "I don't have the money to get a hotel room." And I overheard Tony, who's my husband, talking to someone complaining that he had to drive to Kingston first thing in the morning, and I cornered him and said, "Can I get a ride?" And he gave me a ride. [chuckles]
AS: And that's how you met?
LN: And that's how we met. And then after we took the test, when we came out and it was a really cold day, it was in December, and he had this old beat up Volkswagen Beetle, and I guess he had left it running and when we got out it was dead. And I thought, "Oh my God."
AS: I'm wondering this- the-the management of logistics for this GRE test taking, does it-does it, uh, was it predictive of what, how your household runs together? [chuckles]
LN: I will tell you this, I do not have any executive function to this day.
AS: And when you say that, I think we-we hear that term with just like around burn, burnout around Zoom and what happens. When you say you're- you don't have executive function, how- what do you notice about yourself? What do you mean?
LN: Well, what, you know, I-I-I can get my tasks done, but I have difficulty just organizing them, um, on a day to day basis. It's like I had to hire an assistant to help me keep my calendar and to keep my appointments, because if I didn't have that person, I might forget. I might lose myself in my work. And so I just need someone to help me organize.
AS: Yeah. Do you think that's also part of what you like about the collaboration that's in theater work?
LN: I think you hit the nail on the head. I think that one of the things I love about writing for the theaters is my relationship with the director. Is that I have someone who ultimately is going to help me build this piece, that I began on the page and turn it into something in three dimensions. And I'm often asked, do you want to direct? And I, I really don't because I like watching the way in which the director adds all those ingredients and grows the work into something that I could never anticipate. And I know that when I was a young writer, I was immensely impatient and I wanted things changed immediately and I would blurt things out and the director would say, "Shh! You know, um, just allow some time for that person to first, um, move through their own process. And they may discover it on their own, but if they don't, then you can give them that note."
AS: Wait, do y, do you remember that conversation with the director?
LN: I do. I do remember. And I've even had this conversation with the directors, um, um, recently in which they've told me to back off or not to make the change or allow them, um, to fix something rather than changing the language that is that, you know, the first impulse is I have to fix it, but sometimes it's about allowing your collaborators to meet your intentions without having to make that shift yourself.
AS: When you think about the executive functioning thing, I think of, like, parenting as, like, that for me has been such a challenge to those skills because it's just a constant, uh, it's a constant barrage of executive functioning needs. Um, when you-you-- You had- you had your daughter in 1997. Your son was born 12 years later, right?
AS: When you think about how-how parenting looked in your family, um, for your two different kids, um, did it- did it look different?
LN: A hundred percent. I think my-my-my daughter had the parent who was the struggling artist and whereas my son, Mel, he, you know, he has a Lynn Nottage, who is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, and that's very different than the Lynn Nottage prior to that.
AS: Uh-huh. He has the different Lynn Nottage.
LN: He has the different Lynn Nottage!
AS: Yeah. It must be strange, just as a side note, to have that kind of, um, modifier attached to your name whenever it shows up in print. [laughter]
LN: That's funny because my son teases me with it.
AS: Oh, he does? What does he say?
LN: Yeah. He's like, "It's Lynn Nottage, two time Pulitzer Prize winner." [laughter]
AS: Oh, he's-he's 12 going on 13. That sounds--
LN: Yeah, no, he just-- He's turning 13 actually tomorrow so he says he is 13.
AS: Yeah, that sounds about right. [laughter]
LN: So that's why I mentioned it. But-but, yeah, I mean, I think their lives are very different and my parenting technique is very different between my two children, because I think, you know, your first child, you're learning to be a parent and your second child, you-you learn from all of your mistakes.
AS: Yeah. I-I wanna go back to the-the idea of collaboration. Um, and we were talking about it in-in the context of, sort of, the rehearsal space and when to give notes and when to sort of hold on to, um, something you wanna have control over and when to let it flow a little bit more. And-and I wonder for you, um, does it feel... do you approach disagreement and conflict with your children or, or with your partner, uh, in the same way that you do with your professional collaborators? Like, are you, are you doing that, kind of, when do I hold the line and when do I let it go?
LN: I wish I could say yes to that, um, and I wish I had the same level of discipline and patience with my family that I have with my collaborators. But I think that family stirs emotions in ways that are much more unexpected and, as a result, more difficult to censor.
LN: And so, um, I will say this about collaboration, uh, is that one of the beautiful things that has happened over the years with my husband, because we're both artists, is that we figured out ways to balance our careers. Um, so that, um, when Ruby was young and-- When Mel was young neither of us was away for too long. And, um, we also figured out a way to balance so that we could support each other so that when one person was working, the other person could be there as the cheerleader. And so over the years, we have this really lovely ebb and flow that has sustained us.
AS: Yeah, and also, sort of, like, surrender when there's periods when you are the, perhaps, like the primary parent, um-
AS: -and-and surrendering to that, instead of letting it, you know, pile into a bunch of resentments.
LN: Yeah, I mean, and I-I-I think that it also has kept the resentment from going is that, you know, we used to say two years on two years off, you know. This is your two years to shine and fly and I will be in, sort of, the support staff position, and then, um, vice versa. And I think that we developed a really lovely rhythm that we have to this day, that has allowed both of us to be artists.
AS: How did you come up with two years as the amount of time?
LN: You know it's-it's-- [chuckles] You know, it's-it's funny. It began as a, as a joke, because, um, when Tony was working for a long period of time, I used to joke that I was collecting marriage miles that I was going to cash in. [laughter] And at some point, I said to him I think it's time for me to cash in those marriage miles.
That's Lynn Nottage. MJ, a musical about Michael Jackson that Lynn wrote the book for is on Broadway now... and the opera version of her play Intimate Apparel just wrapped up its New York run and was recorded for future broadcast on PBS.
Death, Sex, and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Caitlin Pierce and Afi Yellow-Duke. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Gabriela Santana.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, that's P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thank you to Anne Clifford in San Diego, California who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex, and Money. Join in and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
Lynn told me it took her and her husband six months of deliberation, and they finally decided on a white and gold rug in their living room.
LN: It's not quite plush, but it is soft to the touch.
LN: And my cats really love pulling at it. [laughter]
AS: So, it looks lived in already. The new rug.
Lynn: It looks lived in already. My husband is like, "Oh my God. These are new rugs and they already look like the old rugs."
I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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