Playwright Lynn Nottage on art about controversial figures

Playwright Lynn Nottage on art about controversial figures

Playwright Lynn Nottage has been making up for lost time. After the lengthy pandemic pause, she had three productions running simultaneously in New York this year.

An opera adaptation of her well-regarded play “Intimate Apparel,” featuring a score by Ricky Ian Gordon, premiered at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, where it was filmed for PBS’ “Great Performances.” “MJ,” the Broadway jukebox musical about Michael Jackson, anxiously opened in February after a couple of months of previews, but with no out-of-town tryouts to test the waters. And “Clyde’s,” her comedy about formerly incarcerated workers at a truck-stop sandwich shop, ended its Broadway run in January, picking up five Tony nominations along the way.

According to American Theatre magazine, which prepares an annual list that excludes productions of “A Christmas Carol” and Shakespeare, Nottage is the most produced playwright of the 2022-23 season (tied with Lauren Gunderson with 24 productions). And “Clyde’s,” which is now entertaining audiences at the Mark Taper Forum, is the most produced play of the season.

Whew, it’s tiring just typing that litany of work. And I haven’t even mentioned that she teaches full time at Columbia University.

“I likened this period to running a marathon,” Nottage said in a downstairs lounge at the Taper one weekday afternoon when she was in town from New York to see the production. “You don’t really understand the extent of the labor or the physical toll until it’s over. And then you collapse at the finish line.”

Nottage wasn’t looking any worse for wear. In fact, she radiated the power of an artist in her prime.

“I think the mindfulness and yoga that I practiced during the pandemic really prepared me to deal with juggling three big shows without feeling overwhelmed,” she said. “I was able to compartmentalize and stay focused. What I told myself was ‘When I’m in rehearsal for ‘Intimate Apparel,’ I’m only in rehearsal for ‘Intimate Apparel’ and I’m not going to worry about what’s happening 20 blocks downtown at ‘Clyde’s’ or at ‘MJ.’ I did it with each show, and I think that’s what prepared me mentally and emotionally, because it was a herculean task.”

The pandemic disruption had another silver lining for the 58-year-old playwright. She began to take pride in being an established veteran. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for drama (“Ruined,” “Sweat”), Nottage is one of the most decorated living dramatists. Yet when you’ve been a trailblazer, it can be challenging to accept your status as a standard-bearer.

She recalled bristling when a young playwright came up to her a few years ago and said, “I’m so happy to meet one of our elders.” “I was like, ‘OK, wow!’” Nottage said. But over the course of COVID and this hectic last year, she’s embraced the notion that she has longevity in her field.

“There’s a younger generation making work in the wake of what I’ve created, so I fully now can embrace being an elder, which is strange because I don’t feel that way about myself,” she said. “But as an African American playwright on the landscape, I am an elder in terms of who is alive my age making work. There’s a handful of us who are doing it on a very large national scale. Of course, there are many, many elder playwrights out there, but I don’t know if there are many that have the visibility and the reach that my work has right now.”

There is a renaissance happening in American drama that is being powered by the brilliant innovations of Black, Indigenous and people of color artists. Black playwrights, in particular, have been leading the revolutionary charge. Is the bracing theatrical complexity of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” and Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play” giving Nottage hope for the future?

“I feel incredibly optimistic and I think there is room finally for us to have a multitude of voices,” Nottage said. “And to have differing and colliding voices, because in the past there could only be one and it had to be a certain kind of voice.”

She joked that that she sometimes felt at a loss for not having a more “bluesy” sensibility. “If you were a kid who grew up in N.Y.C. and had never been to the South, you were in trouble,” she said. “No one in my family sang the blues. But now I feel that we can put our truths on the stage, and that wasn’t always possible. I think the three titles that you mentioned are indicative of that. But the one thing I think we still need to move toward is to stop making plays that feel like they’re designed for the white gaze. Which I would say is true of those three plays.”

Lynn Nottage.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Nottage was speaking as much to herself as she was to Jacobs-Jenkins, Drury and Harris. “The thing that I often think about is the way my own practice has been colonized,” she explained. “And how I am still wrestling with that, because of the institutions that I went to and the stages that cultivated my work and the audiences that are there. So it’s always this battle to reach towards your true authentic self.”

Although best known for her searing dramas, Nottage isn’t married to one particular genre or style. Reliably adventurous in dramatic form, she showed off her range this year with an opera, a jukebox musical and a Broadway comedy with a social conscience.

Is there a playwright that she holds up as model for herself? The question didn’t take long for her to answer: Terrence McNally. It seemed a surprising choice, but on deeper consideration it makes perfect sense. Few dramatists offer as balanced a portfolio as McNally, who won two Tony Awards for best play (“Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class”) and two for best book of a musical (“Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime”). The beloved author of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” he received a fifth Tony for lifetime achievement in 2019, a year before his death.

“He had such incredible flexibility as a writer,” Nottage said. “And I looked at his career as a career to emulate because he had longevity and he was dipping in and out of different genres. He could write a comedy then write something that was political and heavy hitting. I do think a lot about Terrence and his generosity as a human being and the importance he placed on community. He was in the world in a way that I respect.”

This busy period has been filled with learning for Nottage. She wrote her first opera libretto for “Intimate Apparel,” receiving along the way what she described as “a masterclass” in musical storytelling from composer Gordon and dramaturg Paul Cremo. In “MJ,” she took on the challenge of writing the book for a jukebox musical about a contentious pop figure with tremendous baggage and one of the most glittering catalogs in music history. And with “Clyde’s,” she managed to slip into a lighter mode without devolving into fluff.

Two actors embrace onstage.

Kearstin Piper Brown and Justin Austin
in the opera version of “Intimate Apparel” at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater.

(Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

“Intimate Apparel,” which was in previews before the pandemic forced theaters to close, received glowing reviews in New York after the production, directed by Bartlett Sher, finally opened this year. But this chamber work, conceived for an intimate playhouse, doesn’t yet have definitive Los Angeles plans.

“The problem with the opera is that they book five years out,” Nottage said. At this rate, she joked, she’ll be attending the L.A. premiere as an old woman.

The creative team set out “to challenge the traditional paradigm of making opera” by creating something that was developed more like a play, with an extended rehearsal period. Microphones were employed, along with some double casting, so that the work could be performed on the same schedule as a piece of musical theater.

But the downside of creating a hybrid offering is that it can fall between producing worlds. Nottage wasn’t complaining. She has faith in the future of her opera, and she’s delighted that it was filmed for PBS, “because it’s the first time I got to revisit my work.”

An actor dances and sings onstage.

Myles Frost in “MJ” at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre.

(Matthew Murphy)

The idea of writing a Michael Jackson musical had long been brewing in Nottage. So when producer Lia Vollack approached her with the idea, she didn’t need much convincing.

“I am a huge Michael Jackson fan,” Nottage said. “The music is the soundtrack of my life. I perfectly track Michael Jackson from ‘ABC’ to ‘Off the Wall’ to ‘Thriller’ and back. If you remove Michael Jackson’s music, you remove a portion of my childhood.”

The frame of the show involves the singer’s self-punishing quest to perfectly pull off his 1992 Dangerous tour. The timeline skirts the accusations of child sexual abuse that exploded in the media after the Los Angeles Police Department opened an investigation in 1993. (The allegations have resurfaced in recent years, including in documentaries like 2019’s “Leaving Neverland.”)

This evasive chronology, combined with the sympathetic depiction of Jackson as an artist tormented by his childhood in the spotlight, has engendered a fair amount of controversy. But Myles Frost, who portrays the King of Pop in his adult years, won a Tony Award for his performance. And the musical, as Nottage happily reported, has been playing to packed houses for months.

Nottage acknowledged that the creative team felt “protective” of the musical early on, knowing full well that everyone would be “bringing all their preconceived notions to the table.”

“No one reviewed our show,” she said. “People reviewed their complicated relationship to Michael Jackson. And of course, there’s room for that, but what they forget is that we were making a show about an artist who had an indelible impact on 20th century music. And that he was a child star who was damaged in the process of trying to tell his own story through his art.”

Without invoking the loaded term “cancel culture,” I asked Nottage her position on other artists who have been accused of terrible things. Did she have strong feelings about Woody Allen, to take one example of a cultural icon with sexual abuse charges made against him?

“Everyone has different metrics, like ‘This one is wrong but this one is OK,’” she said. “The phrase that I lean into is ‘sustain the complexity.’ We live in a country where we’re forced to sustain the complexity every single moment of our lives. And if we’re operating purely in the binary, that’s when we get into trouble. When we decide that, for these reasons, this person’s art should be scrubbed from the public record, where do you stop and where do you begin? Do you begin with the quote-unquote ‘Founding Fathers,’ who committed genocide in order to build this country? Do you look at early rock ‘n’ roll artists who were having relationships with girls 12 and 13 years old? I have to be really circumspect about the way I approach this because I think there’s room to talk about, to interrogate, to spotlight complicated artists, without necessarily having to spotlight the complication.”

“MJ” is by far the biggest and most lucrative Broadway show Nottage has ever done. But something beyond the commercial imperative was driving her.

“One of the things that you can’t dismiss is that we all have a relationship with Michael Jackson, if you’re a certain age. And we haven’t all had the space or opportunity to process how we feel. That is why we created a piece of art, in which people, regardless of what you believe, can come in and have a journey. Whether that journey is to move deeper into your love or whether your journey is to release some of those emotions, we just wanted to create that space.”

Nedra Snipes, left, Garrett Young, Reza Salazar and Kevin Kenerly in

Nedra Snipes, left, Garrett Young, Reza Salazar and Kevin Kenerly in “Clyde’s” at the Mark Taper Forum.

(Craig Schwartz/All Uses © 2022 )

The box office success of “MJ” is hardly a shocker. But is she surprised that “Clyde’s,” a workplace comedy about formerly incarcerated people struggling to make new lives for themselves, has become a national hit?

“I’m always surprised when the work is embraced,” she said. “I feel like ‘Clyde’s’ is simple but also complicated. In some ways, it feels like the right play to be bringing us back out of COVID, because it is about people who have been through a difficult time. But it’s also about resilience and optimism and ephemerality. To be part of a community, to be working, to be alive, to be all those things that when you’re incarcerated you don’t get to do with the fullness of who you are because you are caged — we can understand what those people went through very differently than we might have understood two years ago.”

The vulnerable souls in this increasingly allegorical play are up for grabs as the forces of good and evil battle for control over them. A fellow worker instills in the kitchen staff a sense of pride in the art of sandwich making. But the proprietor, a capitalist dominatrix, cares only about speed and efficiency. Job security is pitted against spiritual redemption in a work that at times seems to be making a sly commentary on the perennial conflict between art and commerce in the American theater.

“I think the play is very intentionally about creative expression and having room to shape your own narrative through art,” Nottage said. “That is really at its core. How do you take the simple ingredients that you have in front of you and create something that is singular and special? Something that when people bite into it they understand fully who you are and you have a communion?”

In her exemplary career, Nottage has managed to do just that in theatrical works of astonishing imaginative variety. Her signature is not to be boxed in by a signature. But her wise, generous, crusading humanity has become one of the most cherished landmarks in contemporary American theater.

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