Down the Rabbit Hole with Lynn Nottage
Undine: No one seems troubled by the actual charges against me. No, the crime isn’t being a criminal, it’s being broke. It’s apparently against the law to be a poor black woman in New York City. And believe me, I don’t want to be poor, it requires too much hard work.
—from Fabulation, by Lynn Nottage
Lynn Nottage is back and better than ever. Emerging from the current production of her wonderful Intimate Apparel—at, of all places, the Roundabout—I was seized with the desire to reconnect with her for an In Dialogue. Especially since this meant I would get to read before anyone else her new satiric comedy, Fabulation, which is debuting this month at Playwrights Horizons.
I’ve been a fan of Nottage’s wry and sociopolitical work since the early 1990s. A personal, bizarre favorite of mine is her play Las Meninas, which is based on the real-life forbidden romance between the wife of Louis XIV and her African dwarf servant. It’s such an absurd, and yet true, story. In many of Nottage’s plays, absurdity and truth reflect off one another, to striking effect. Meeting with her recently to discuss her work, I wonder if she thinks about that at all. She says no.
"That’s just what happens. I think that things that I’m attracted to as a writer tend to be slightly more absurd. We all look at the world through our own particular filters, and when I process stuff, that’s how it comes out. Some people process stuff and it comes out in these really sort of compact cubes in which all the corners are perfectly lined up. That’s not true for me."
Nottage likens her new play, Fabulation, to Alice in Wonderland. Its "anti-heroine," a high-powered publicist, hits some hard times and finds herself hurtling down the rabbit hole of the have-nots. As I write, the production is still in rehearsal, but things certainly bode well for its appeal; it stars Obie-winning Charlayne Woodard, who knocked our socks off in Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood, and is directed by the up-and-coming Kate Whoriskey (whom, I am tickled to report, Vogue recently named a "Woman to Watch").
Also, the script is f*-ing hilarious.
Whenever I mention a bit that I find particularly amusing, there is a gratifying giggle from the author. However, in general, when talking about her work, Lynn Nottage is extremely serious. Her speaking voice is soft and gentle, but the content of her words is anything but. She views Fabulation, which is subtitled The Re-Education of Undine, as a morality tale.
"For me the issue of the play is who have we become, and what price have we paid to become the person that we are, and what do we leave behind," she says.
She is speaking specifically of "African-Americans who have achieved a certain amount of success," but she agrees that this issue is universal.
"It’s about everyone who has drifted away from who they are. One of the things I wanted to examine is how difficult it is to be poor in America right now. You can have all the intelligence in the world and think that you’re savvy, but the system is still incredibly difficult to negotiate, and you literally can become trapped in there. And that’s what I wanted to show, that this woman who has achieved a certain level of success can go back into the system and realize, ‘Oh, I can get stuck.’ There is something fundamentally wrong with the system, not with the people who are trapped within it."
The premise of this play seems claustrophobic at first glance. But Nottage’s treatment is so zestily theatrical, so irreverent, that we never truly fear for Undine, whose wild, skewed journey is through a rabbit hole both bureaucratic and psychic. We feel that she will somehow end up on top, and here she even ends up, after many trials and tribulations, redeemed.
Yet Undine’s homecoming is refreshingly unsentimental. Her parents are understandably hurt at having been reported dead some years back in a magazine profile. Her brother is downright hostile. He’s also at work on an epic poem about Brer Rabbit. And her grandmother is…well, I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say, the place we belong may be a little kooky, and the people we belong with a little "touched." Still, we cannot ignore our identity. As Nottage says, "When you do that, you end up severing a part of yourself."
It may seem as if Nottage is everywhere this spring, but she has only recently returned from a playwriting hiatus.
"In 1997, I had two really large interruptions in my life. One was my mother getting Lou Gehrig’s disease and then having to care for her, and then having a child who came right as she was dying."
That year she moved back to the Brooklyn house in which she grew up, where she still lives. When I muse upon a possible similarity between Nottage and her protagonist, she says: "In Fabulation, granted, it’s not my life, and the woman is so far from who I am, but there are echoes of things that I’ve experienced, certainly…going out into the world and accomplishing certain things and then finding yourself right back where you started and slightly humbled."
She spent several years caring for her daughter, Ruby, before picking up the pen again in earnest: "I had an infusion of inspiration. I was suddenly confronted with all the major life events that hadn’t occurred before, and I now had time to process them."
And process them, in her un-cube-like way, she did.
Nottage’s influences are as disparate and intriguing as Richard Pryor, Bertolt Brecht, and Toni Morrison. I’m struck by the recognizability of Fabulation, how in some ways it resembles many successful fish-out-of-water scenarios from Hollywood. It also has romance. And lush, wise language.
Grandma: Sweet pea, I thought that I’d get to this point and be filled with so much wisdom that I’d know just how to control the pain that’s trailed me through life. The truth would be revealed, and some great doorway would open and God’s light would encircle and lift me out of the ordinariness of my life. One would think you’d be closer to God at my age, but I find myself curiously further away.
And, of course, social commentary.
"My role as a theater artist, and I think this is really important, is to raise issues that people aren’t necessarily thinking about," says Nottage. "It’s to introduce new ideas."
My problem with issue-driven theater is that sometimes it’s just not any good.
"But that’s true of everything, that’s true of all theater," Nottage points out. "There’s good issue-driven theater and there’s bad issue-driven theater."
She’s got me. I try to clarify that my problem is with self-importance. Nottage’s work has a point, but it’s also good entertainment. It doesn’t bore me, it doesn’t talk down to me, and it’s not deliberately inscrutable (which I guess is included in the don’t bore me part).
Lynn then reveals her rigorous path to forging a style that mixes politics with pleasure: "I made a really conscious decision, and it was sometime after Mud, River, Stone (1997). I thought, these issues are very important to me, and political theater is very important, and communicating to the audience. But I thought, I can do it in a way that is slightly different and I can win over more people without necessarily preaching to them or smacking them in the face, but by entertaining them, and while they’re entertained sort of sneaking that information in so that they’re forced to go, ‘Ooh.’ Which I think is much more difficult to do, and that’s why the plays are taking slightly longer to write. Because I could write preachy plays, but I found they were not working. They weren’t working for me and they weren’t working for the audiences."
So she decided to approach her topical issues in a more metaphorical way.
For example, Intimate Apparel, a satisfyingly conventional play on the surface, ends with a projected title above the lead character alone on stage which reads, "Unidentified Negro Seamstress, circa 1905."
"It’s an ironic ending, and it’s my way of saying that a hundred years later this woman is still completely marginalized and she doesn’t have a voice. I feel that when people leave that theater and when they look at the people who are working in their homes, that there’s going to be slightly more consciousness."
Lynn aims to show her audience the stories of people that they might not normally have considered. She wants them to see how complicated and worthy these stories are. Interestingly, the lead character in Fabulation is called upon to make this same adjustment, although in a much more immediate way. Undine has spent her adult life avidly not considering the lives of the underprivileged. Then she becomes one of them.
Undine: Maybe I’ll go to church or give alms, or do something to rectify the imbalance. I’ll climb a mountain or tend to some limbless African children in the middle of a malaria zone. And by the way, when did you acquire that fabulous accent?
Allison: Do you like it?
Undine: Yes. I love it.
Allison: Good. I’ve been trying it out. I’m in my Eartha Kitt phase, I’m making bold social choices. You don’t think it’s too much?Undine: Of course it is.
When Lynn started writing the play, all she knew was that Undine would give birth at the end. It takes some time and many theatrical hijinks before Undine can escape her superficiality and arrive at a place where she has something real to offer the world (and a child).
So why plays? I ask.
We stare at each other.
And? She pauses for a long time. A long pause for Lynn Nottage is about three seconds. After which she comes up with something rather lovely.
"I don’t know, other than this is the form that found me. For which I think that the particular voice I have is best matched. And I think that ultimately I am a collaborative artist. I really do. I don’t think this is true of a lot of playwrights, because I hear them say, ‘Oh well I should have directed,’ but part of the adventure for me is discovering what someone else has to say about the work that I’ve created. On so many levels, I’m interested. Even if I don’t agree with the director’s interpretation, I’m interested in hearing what that interpretation is, and seeing it. And I may be ultimately horrified, but that’s part of this process. Someone asked me, ‘Well don’t you want to direct your play?’ and I thought, ‘I’ve seen my play.’ I spent a year with the play. I know exactly how it should be. I’m not interested in seeing that version in my head. I’m interested in seeing the version that someone else is going to help me arrive at. I know exactly what I want, and I live with that every day. The fun is seeing what I don’t want and how surprising and wonderful that can be."
Intimate Apparel runs through June 13 at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.
Fabulation runs June 3 through June 27 at Playwrights Horizons. Tickets, call 212-279-4200. Tickets $35, unless you are under 30 ($25 at the door, ID required) or a student ($12 at the door, ID required).
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: email@example.com