Playwright Lynn Nottage Talks about the Keys to Her Success

By Daylan Paige
Data News Weekly Contributor

Critically acclaimed Playwright Lynn Nottage, an Associate Professor of Theatre at Columbia University, shared stories from her successful career and her techniques of her writing at a lecture on Feb. 9, 2019 at Tulane University. Nottage is a two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner and well-known screenwriter, who discussed her life as a writer. She is also a Co-Founder for Market Road Films, a production company that has produced television programs that aired on the National Geographic Network, among others.

“I think that the African-American narrative is a part of the American narrative,” Nottage said. “I think my role is to reinsert us into that story and also to reclaim the story because people forget that this is our story as well,” she said.

From early on, she said she knew that playwriting is what she wanted to do. “I had a family that very much valued art, so at a very young age they took me to see theatre,” Nottage said. “While I was in high school, I began to nurture my love for theatre,” Nottage said.

She shared that Musical Theatre Composer and Lyricist Stephen Sondheim selected her to be mentored through a playwright festival. She was one of the four writers that he handpicked to be in a workshop at the festival. He introduced them to different types of works and to the art of theatre.

“That being some of the seeds for me and the possibility of me turning this into a career,” she said. In mainstream writing today, Nottage said she felt society does not get to witness correct and positive portrayals of the African-American community. She said that when she is writing she does not think only about race, but how her story intersects race.

She spoke on her Pulitzer Prize Winning play “Sweat” that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making her the first woman to win twice in this category. She said she wrote this drama with empathy and compassion, looking at the multiple challenges for women in achieving the American dream. “You have to love your characters before you hate them,” she added.

Nottage said it was also important to stay grounded, and she noted she watches television in her spare time to relax. As a Theatre Teacher at Columbia, she said she stays rooted because she learns from her students who reminds her that there is a world outside of the fame. Nottage told the audience that every morning when she is in a workshop with her young students, she gets to have regular conversations that she really does not get to have among famous people.

“It’s really this lovely way of staying engaged in the world and forgetting all of the awards,” she said.

As part of marking Black History Month, John “Ray” Proctor, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Tulane said Nottage’s achievements as an African-American Playwright spoke to the talents and abilities of Black writers.

“She is one of the most important playwrights in the world,” Proctor said. “It would be the equivalent of interviewing Beyoncé, she’s quite literally a superstar,” he said of her impact in the theatre world.

Proctor believes that teaching at a predominantly White school it is his responsibility to bring successful Black people like Nottage for not just students of color but for all students.

When he thinks about Black excellence and achievements, Proctor said her work showcases why it is important to have Black storytellers. “For me Lynn Nottage is telling a very important story right now,” he said.

Nottage said she realized that her position in the industry mattered when she noticed that a Black lead actress in one of her plays kept stepping off to the side of the stage as if she was just an extra. Nottage said that the actress was not accustomed to being a lead character in a play. She then made the effort to reassure the actress that although she was Black, it was okay to be in the spotlight.

“You don’t have to wait on the invitation to make your art,” she said.

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