Esteemed Playwright Named 2007 'Genius'

African-American playwright Lynne Nottage is the author of several works, including Crumbs from the Table of Joy. Nottage has just been named a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award. The Brooklyn-based artist talks about her work and what the award means for her future in the performing arts.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, our Mocha Moms and our Money Coach weigh in on elder care.

But first, the 2007 MacArthur Fellows are being announced today, commonly known as the Genius Grant. And one of the prizes, half a million dollars, no strings attached, has been awarded to Brooklyn playwright Lynn Nottage.

Nottage has been called a modern day Zora Neale Hurston, whose dialogue and ability to convey character have shed dramatic light on experiences across the African Diaspora.

Lynn Nottage joins us today in our New York studios. Welcome and congratulations.

Ms. LYNN NOTTAGE (Playwright): Thank you very much. I'm extremely excited.

MARTIN: Tell me where you were and what you were doing when you got that phone call.

Ms. NOTTAGE: I was at home. It was in the middle of the day. I was in the midst of some procrastinating on the telephone with a fellow playwright. And the phone clicked, and I click over and a man said are you by yourself? Are you sitting down? And I immediately said, oh my God, this is a crank phone call. And…

MARTIN: Did you hand up?

Ms. NOTTAGE: No, I didn't. I told my friend I'd better click back. And then he immediately told me I had won the MacArthur, and I was rendered absolutely speechless. And for the next few seconds, I have no idea what he said to me.

MARTIN: Did you know immediately what he was talking about?

Ms. NOTTAGE: I did know immediately what he was talking about. At first, I thought perhaps he was asking me to be on a panel. And then I realized, oh no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: He was asking you to be on a panel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NOTTAGE: Yeah. You know, I'm used to being asked to be on panels. And so I just thought it was another invitation.

MARTIN: How did the writing start for you?

Ms. NOTTAGE: I began writing when I was very young. I grew up in a family of storytellers. My grandmother was a phenomenal storyteller, and I think if she lived in a different generation, she probably would have written for the stage or she would have written novels. So I think that I came to writing through my family and through this desire to tell the stories of my grandmother, of my mother, of friends of mine.

MARTIN: But, I guess, I wonder what is the process by which one becomes a playwright. Now, I remember that you - you worked for Amnesty International for a while…

Ms. NOTTAGE: I do.

MARTIN: …as a spokesperson?

Ms. NOTTAGE: I was the national press person for Amnesty International for about four years. I took that job immediately after graduating from Yale drama school because I felt as though I had spent my entire life in school and I needed an alternative experience. And I turned to human rights activism, which in some ways I don't see that different from being a storyteller and bringing to light stories of people who've never been told.

MARTIN: But it doesn't leave very much time for writing.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Well, I didn't. When I became press officer, I sold my computer, and for four years, I dedicated myself to human rights work. And then I remember exactly the moment of transition. A photographer had brought in some images of women from a battered women's shelter - really strong, provocative images. And they were shots of women at that moment when they entered the shelter.

I went to my boss, I said is there something we can do here at Amnesty International? And at that time, our mandate didn't encompass domestic abuse. And I knew at that moment I had to write about those faces. And I sat down at 10 o'clock at night in my office, and I wrote a short play called "Poof" that I submitted to the Actors Theater of Louisville, and it won a competition and then it was performed. And I realized that there was a way for me to marry the two sides of my brain.

MARTIN: But you were trained as - you have an MFA from Yale, a masters in fine arts. You must have known that there was an artist in there waiting to come out.

Ms. NOTTAGE: I did.

MARTIN: But I guess I just wonder how could you have you put it aside for those years.

Ms. NOTTAGE: I never put the artist aside. I think that that part of me was always active in whatever I did and the way in which I approached the world. But I felt as though many of us are asked to take different journeys in this life, and for four years, I think I was asked to explore something different that then could expand the way in which I wrote and the way in which I could approach my art.

MARTIN: Was it a matter of - forgive me for pushing this. I'm just always fascinated by the process by which people claim their space as an artist. And I just wonder if there was a part you that though you didn't have the right to be an artist, you didn't, you know, there's so much need in the world that maybe you needed to get your hands on something more tangible before you could allow yourself to just do your art.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Well, I do. I think that there was a lot of fear in my part. I felt as though I didn't have a story to tell. And what I realized now that I'm older that I most definitely did have that story, but I felt as though I needed to absorb more of the world experience.

MARTIN: So, "Poof" was performed, and then you, what? Did you go back to writing full time? Or…

Ms. NOTTAGE: I went back to writing. I cashed in my 401k, and I temped and I struggled for many years. And I still continue to struggle.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're speaking with 2007 MacArthur Fellow award winner, Lynn Nottage.

One the things that I'm struck by is that many of your plays tackle some very difficult themes. Like in "Mud, River and Stone," you write about a hostage situation in Mozambique, and "Por'Knockers" is set in a New York apartment with terrorists who blow up a building. How do you live with those stories in your head day after day?

Ms. NOTTAGE: I think part of the reason I write is because I have to get those stories out on the page. I feel as though I'm haunted by many different voices, and I'm sure you've heard other writers say that. And I'll be riding the subway and I can hear that terrorist talking to me. I can hear King Louie XIV talking to me. And until I put it on the page, they stay with me. And so, I think for me, in part, writing is cleansing.

MARTIN: Another thing that's interesting about your work is you go from this big themes, big political themes that we were speaking about earlier like in "Mud, River and Stone," and to these very personal stories. There's "Intimate Apparel," which is the tale of a young woman who lives at the turn of the 20th century who's a seamstress, who makes intimate apparel, but her own life is not as nearly as emotionally rich.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Rich as the other…

MARTIN: As the people who she imagines she's making her work for. And the other piece I wanted to talk about was "Crumbs from the Table of Joy," which I think may be one of your best-known plays.

Ms. NOTTAGE: "Crumbs form the Table of Joy" was my first professional play. And so, in some ways, it's very near and dear to my heart. And it's about an African-American family in 1951 that moves from the South to Brooklyn - to a basement apartment in Bed-Stuy after the family matriarch dies. And a very spicy liberal aunt moves in with the family and sort of creates chaos in their world.

MARTIN: Would you mind if I reveal a plot to twist?

Ms. NOTTAGE: Sure.

MARTIN: Which is that this - the dad's very conservative, very religious, has those girls kind of lock down, and then one day he goes out and in order - one of his - one of the things that's locked down about him is his racial view and his sense of what is possible for him, being an African-American man. Then one day he goes out and comes home with a German woman as his bride.

Ms. NOTTAGE: That's correct.

MARTIN: Where on earth did that come from?

Ms. NOTTAGE: Well, it's very loosely based on a story that my god sister told me when she was growing up, that her father disappeared for a few days, and he reappeared with this German woman and the family, literally could not wrap their hands around it. And it was quite a provocative statement in the 1950's. And so, I lifted that little nugget of a story and put it in the center of "Crumbs from the Table of Joy."

MARTIN: What were you hoping people would experience, and not just in that piece, but in "Intimate Apparel," as people experience these very painful emotions? What are you hoping people will see?

Ms. NOTTAGE: Well, I know in "Intimate Apparel," one of the things that I was hoping - and I end the play with a projective image of unidentified negro woman is that there are women - in particular, African-American women - whose stories have not been recognized. And so, I hope by the end of the journey that they take with my plays is that when they look the pictures from the early 20th century, that these women will not be name - nameless figures, but they'll actually be imbued with stories, and they'll think of them as more than unidentified Negro.

MARTIN: There are many prominent African-American women in public life today. You know, not to be cliche but what - you know, you think about Oprah Winfrey, you think Dr. Condoleezza Rice. I just wonder, though, if you still feel that there is a voice of the African-American woman that is not being heard.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Very much so. I think that Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Condoleezza Rice are somewhat of anomalies. I think for the majority of African-American women the reality is that their voices do not reach the mainstream. And I think, in part, that's why I write.

You know, I know my grandmother - who was this phenomenal storyteller, who lived her life in a really rich and wonderful way, who did, quote unquote, nothing extraordinary - was an extraordinary person. And I go to the movies and I read books and I look at television, and very rarely do I see representations of her on the stage or in film.

MARTIN: What is it about her voice that you want people to hear?

Ms. NOTTAGE: I want them to hear her story. I want them to hear her struggle. I feel as though there is an American story that hasn't been fully heard. My grandmother's ancestors came from Barbados. They struggled. They came through Ellis Island, and I very rarely hear of that Ellis Island story.

My grandmother didn't graduate from high school and college until I was in high school myself. And I feel as though what she accomplished was quite phenomenal given the circumstances, and I really feel as though that story needs to be celebrated.

MARTIN: You're a mother yourself.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Yes, I am.

MARTIN: And I know many women artists have sometimes struggled between the passion for their work and their passion for their family. I just wondered if that has ever been a struggle for you.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Well, it's been an incredible struggle for me. I went into production three weeks after my daughter was born, and I remember sitting backstage listening to my play on the monitor instead of being in the theater because I was in the process of nursing.

And certainly, I feel a tremendous amount of mother's guilt every time I go on the road, and sometimes the demands are quite hard. I have to be at a theater for five weeks, and I feel that kind of schizophrenic - it's like part of me is in the theater and the other part of me is thinking about is she in bed yet? Is she hungry?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Has her homework been done?

Ms. NOTTAGE: Has her homework been done?

MARTIN: Has her hair been braided?

Ms. NOTTAGE: Yes. All of those things.

MARTIN: What do you plan to do with the grant?

Ms. NOTTAGE: I don't know yet. It's very new to me, and I'm someone who doesn't like to project too far into the future. I imagine that I will probably use some of it to remove some of the financial pressures that I experience day-to-day. And I think that this grant is going to certainly make it a lot easier for me to settle down and write.

MARTIN: Nice bottle of wine in your future?

Ms. NOTTAGE: Well, I can tell you…

MARTIN: A cute pair of suede boots? Come on, now.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Well I can tell you what I did the day I found out that I got the grant is…

MARTIN: Tell.

Ms. NOTTAGE: …I love lamb, and I decided that I was going to go home and cook myself some lamb chops. And, usually, I get the shoulder. And I decided, you know what? Tonight, I'm going to have the ribs.

Ms. NOTTAGE: I'm going to splurge for the, you know, the prime cut. But I, you know, the grant doesn't kick in until next year, so I'm really frightened to spend any money. That's just who I am.

MARTIN: Don't burst my bubble.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Oh.

MARTIN: I have a fantasy that you all immediately went out and bought, you know, the most expense vintage that they had at the stores.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Oh, I…

MARTIN: Just please let me have my fantasy.

Ms. NOTTAGE: I wish. Well, I bought the most expensive cut.

MARTIN: Okay. Well deserved.

Lynne Nottage has just won a 2007 MacArthur Fellow, a so-called Genius Award. She joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Lynne Nottage, thank you so much.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: And congratulations.

Ms. NOTTAGE: Thank you.

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