“Stay Open”: Lynn Nottage & the Value of Surprise

Lynn Nottage was born in Brooklyn in 1964, the daughter of a school teacher and a child psychologist. In the intervening years, she has become one of America’s most renowned playwrights, with multiple shows on Broadway (sometimes concurrently), two Pulitzer prizes, and a resume that includes opera, TV, and the multi-media site-specific installation This is Reading. Despite her dazzling list of accomplishments, one thing remains the same: Nottage still lives in the Boerum Hill brownstone she was raised in. It’s not surprising, then, that this building—an “always semi-renovated” house in “a very cosmopolitan neighborhood that would eventually become gentrified”—has proven influential in her writing. “There was always the possibility that things would be fixed but they never quite were,” Nottage explains. “Those are the kinds of things I write about.”

At first, it might seem difficult to pin down “the kinds of things” that draw Nottage’s attention. Her work spans absurd tragicomedy (Poof), research-steeped realism (Ruined), and the tender drama of Intimate Apparel, the 2003 piece that first made Nottage a star (after all, “who wants to see the same play again and again?“ she says). But while Nottage’s work is notable for its mutability, it also reflects her own lived experience of consistency, of return. Even as she ranges between wildly different topics, Nottage continues to work with a tight-knit group of collaborators, particularly director Kate Whoriskey. A few years after she moved back to her childhood home, Nottage premiered Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, about a publicist who finds herself thrown back in with her family (in Boerum Hill, of course). Like Fabulation, all of Nottage’s work is somehow rooted in her own life: “I always write about my experience,” she likes to say, “it’s just told through metaphor.”

That is particularly true when it comes to the subjects she chooses. Though Nottage can bring lived-in texture to such figures as a slaughtered elephant (Mlima’s Tale), a Golden Age starlet (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark), and a disaffected factory worker (Sweat), all of her characters tend to be people “who have been erased from the public record.” This work is deeply personal for Nottage: “I write about people who are marginalized because, as an African American woman, particularly now I am a middle aged woman, I walk down the street and people will bump into me. To much of the population, I am invisible.” It follows, then, that Nottage has spent a career giving “invisible” characters the stage.

To some extent, Clyde’s represents the zenith of that project (in one of the show’s tenderest moments, a character cries out that “they’ve seen us!”). Premiering on Broadway in the spring of 2022, Nottage’s latest work follows a group of formerly incarcerated people, struggling to return to a world that is determined to exclude them. In writing the play, Nottage was inspired by “the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi—finding the beauty in things that are broken.” As they make sandwiches and vent about their boss, the characters of Clyde’s struggle to redefine themselves, fighting “the gravitational pull” of the stereotypes that surround them. And like Nottage in her brownstone, they learn to balance the “possibility that things would be fixed” with the beauty of “things that are broken.”

Nottage, having reached the highest heights of the theater industry, can still relate to this need for re-definition. “Everything’s up for grabs,” she argues. “I’ve been writing plays for the last 20 years. Should I only be seen as a playwright? That’s not the full extent of who I am.” Both Clyde’s and Nottage’s artistic path testify that the full extent of a life is always more expansive, more in flux, than it might seem; we just have to remain ready for the surprise. Or as Montrellous, the head chef in Clyde’s, might say: “stay open.”

Francesca Sabel