Two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage turns a triple play in New York City
Nottage, the only woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, has a new play on Broadway, an opera at Lincoln Center Theater and a Michael Jackson musical opening soon.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage has been very busy the last few months. Right now she has a new play and a new musical on Broadway and a new opera at Lincoln Center. Jeff Lunden managed to get some time on her calendar.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Last month, I sat down with Lynn Nottage at the Hayes Theater, where her new comedy, "Clyde's," is being performed. She had some time to chat before going to a preview performance of "MJ," the new Michael Jackson musical, for which she's written a libretto.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I will tell you, in all honesty, I haven't been getting a lot of sleep (laughter).
LUNDEN: But she quickly added...
NOTTAGE: This is the dream. The dream is to really be busy doing the thing that you love, deeply immersed in making art.
LUNDEN: Lynn Nottage has been living the dream since the mid-1990s, when her plays began getting produced by major theaters. Along the way, her dramas "Ruined" and "Sweat" received Pulitzers, making her the first woman to win the category twice. Kate Whoriskey directed those two plays, as well as "Clyde's."
KATE WHORISKEY: She's incredible with character. And also, she's great with structure. And then I would say the last thing is that I think she has the ability to see into the future more than anyone I know in terms of what the world is asking for.
LUNDEN: Nottage describes "Clyde's" as magical realism. And she says it's set both in the kitchen of a sandwich shop and a liminal space. All the play's characters are formerly incarcerated, including the shop's owner, who's kind of the boss from hell.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CLYDE'S")
UZO ADUBA: (As Clyde) Don't thank me, but guess who got you 15 pounds of Chilean sea bass?
ADUBA: (As Clyde) Got a good deal, and I didn't even have to [expletive] anybody.
REZA SALAZAR: (As Rafael) The fish smells rank.
ADUBA: (As Clyde) Well, you know my policy. If it ain't brown or gray, it can be fried.
LUNDEN: Uzo Aduba plays the devilish Clyde. She admires Nottage's choice of topics.
ADUBA: She has done the very hard thing of giving space to faces, voices and stories that are often forgotten.
LUNDEN: When Nottage went to Reading, Penn., to research "Sweat," her play about struggling blue-collar workers, she also spoke with many people who were trying to resurrect their lives after leaving prison. So while the characters in "Clyde's" work a dreary, repetitive job, they dream of a better future and a better sandwich.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CLYDE'S")
KARA YOUNG: (As Letitia) Listen up. My perfect sandwich - I got this. Peanut butter, grape jelly, with a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg.
RON CEPHAS JONES AND REZA SALAZAR: (As Montrellous and Rafael) Ooh.
SALAZAR: (As Rafael) Cubano sandwich.
LUNDEN: Nottage says the comedy is about both mindfulness and the creative process.
NOTTAGE: A sandwich is very simple, but you can assemble it in such ways that make those flavor combinations quite complicated. And I like to think of that as a metaphor for what we do as artists.
LUNDEN: Nottage has expanded her portfolio as an artist in adapting her popular play "Intimate Apparel" into an opera with a score by Ricky Ian Gordon.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "INTIMATE APPAREL")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Step lively, twirl the ring (ph).
LUNDEN: Set at the turn of the last century, it's about a Black seamstress who makes lingerie while yearning for love. Nottage wrote the play when she found a photograph of her great-grandmother shortly after her mother died and while she was moving her grandmother to dementia care.
NOTTAGE: I had so many questions, and I realized there was no one left to answer them. And that really broke my heart. And it made me think a lot about, particularly as an African American woman, a Black woman, that so much of our history has been lost because of the reticence on the part of our relatives and their belief that our stories weren't important enough to document.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "INTIMATE APPAREL")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) My mother, my father - they were slaves. Even free, they were slaves.
RICKY IAN GORDON: Lynn is a very deep swimmer. You don't have to worry about whether it's going to get there. Make its point and grab you by gizzard.
LUNDEN: Composer Ricky Ian Gordon says for this, Nottage's first opera, the two of them worked closely to not just boil down the intimate play to its essence but also to open it up, so it evokes the world beyond.
GORDON: And that's the kind of writer you want to work with because writing music is hard. And you really want to feel like if you're going to go there, you want the writer to go there.
LUNDEN: The final project of Nottage's trifecta is a musical featuring the back catalogue of the late superstar Michael Jackson. She says his music was her personal soundtrack.
NOTTAGE: I can track through all of my emotional life through the Michael Jackson songbook, and so I was very excited to figure out a way to bring those songs to life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANNA BE STARTIN' SOMETHIN'")
MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) I said you wanna be startin' somethin'. You got to be startin' somethin'.
LUNDEN: She and her collaborators decided to set the musical in the days before Jackson's enormous 1992 world tour as a jumping-off point for the king of pop to reflect on his life and career.
NOTTAGE: We talk about it as a mixtape of his life.
LUNDEN: The tour was eventually interrupted by Jackson's drug addiction and the beginning of press reports alleging child abuse. While "MJ" focuses on Jackson's creative process, director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon acknowledges the controversy surrounding its subject.
CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON: Everyone brings their own feelings, their own thoughts about Michael into the house. And I think that's one of the things that Lynn has done so successfully - is create this piece of art that allows for some breath around those viewpoints.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN IN THE MIRROR")
JACKSON: (Singing) I'm starting with the man in the mirror.
LUNDEN: While theater was on pause during the pandemic and after George Floyd's murder, Lynn Nottage co-signed a document called "We See You, White American Theater" demanding institutional change. And since Broadway reopened, many of the plays produced have been by Black playwrights. Nottage is optimistic, but...
NOTTAGE: We have to not allow ourselves to go backward. And some of that onus is on us as artists. Some of the onus is on producers and people who work in the industry, but I also think some of the onus is on the audiences because they have to come out and support us.
LUNDEN: And for those who want to support it, Nottage's play "Clyde's" will be live streamed this weekend. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF NERIJA'S "EQUANIMOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.