Two Plays by Lynn Nottage

by Dianne Feeley

February 22, 2012

Black History Month presents opportunities to see plays by African American playwrights and this month I’ve seen two very different ones by Lynn Nottage. It seems natural to compare her to Ntozake Shange and August Wilson, two important 20th century’s Black playwrights. Like Shange and Wilson, there are moments where the character reveals himself/herself in a soliloquy that bursts forth in what I can only recall as poetry. And like them, Nottage’s characters are mostly ordinary people living their lives as best they can.

But while Wilson had a grand vision of writing a play about African American experience representing each decade of the 20th century, Nottage has written plays set in a variety of places. Shange’s plays were mostly set in urban America although her 1980 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” transposed Europe’s Thirty Years War to post-Reconstruction America.

Lynn Nottage grew up in Brooklyn, raised by what she describes as “Black bohemians” and still lives
there with her husband and 7-year-old daughter. Biographies of her mention that her mother and
grandmother were active in the civil rights and feminist movements, and from the time she was a child she heard about their trips to Africa. She worked for Amnesty International for several years, won a MacArthur genius award in 2007 and visited several countries in East Africa to research for “Ruined,” one of her plays.

A scene from “Ruined.” Photo: Huntington Theater Company.

“Ruined,” which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is set in a brothel near a mining town in the
Congo. It is both a house of prostitution and a refuge for women who have been raped by government soldiers or rebels—it doesn’t matter which—and whose communities have then rejected them. The proud owner of the business is Mama Nadi. Like Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” she does what is necessary in order to survive.

Originally Nottage was going to adapt the Brecht play, but her research led her in another direction. While Brecht wanted the audience to focus on the issues of war, corruption and loss, Nottage’s “Ruined” gives us a more close up and personal view of those same issues. Also like Brecht’s play and Shange’s adaptation, “Ruined” is presented as a series of scenes. At the play’s end, the chaos of the civil war continues, but Mama Nadi’s possibilities are less bleak than those of Mother Courage—although I personally had my doubts.

Lynn Nottage speaks at Occupy Wall Street.

The other play I saw, Intimate Apparel,” is less based on research than on family history. Nottage
describes it as her most personal play. The main character, Esther, is based on her great-grandmother, a seamstress who came to the United States from Barbados at the beginning of the 20th century. I can see why it is an often-produced play. Not only are there strong and interesting characters, but as a seamstress, Esther is interested in fabrics, patterns and design that lead her to develop a deep relationship with a shopkeeper and Hassidic Jew. As she is asked to confess a transgression to a customer, who has just confessed her own, she admits to having touched someone she wasn’t supposed to, just because she wanted to. Esther, like Mama Nadi, is a strong and outspoken woman. But unlike Mama Nadi, she is never morally ambiguous.

Look forward to seeing Lynn Nottage’s plays! They have humor, political themes and interesting
characters. For now, hear Nottage talk about these works and others in the interview below…