By Fern Gillespie
Our Time Press was proud to be a co-sponsor of an intimate evening at Billie Holiday Theatre that honored Brooklyn’s historic two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage. A third generation Brooklynite, Nottage is the first woman playwright to earn two Pulitzer Prizes in theatre. Her first was the drama Ruined about the plight of women in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, which also earned OBIE, Lucille Lortel, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Audelco, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards. This year, Sweat, about factory workers in a Pennsylvania steel-town, was awarded a Pulitzer.
It was a poignant program. Nottage’s Yale School of Drama classmates Yvonne Joyner Levette and Shay Wafer, Executive Director, 651 ARTS, recalled their budding friendships in the late 1980s as Black women grad students penning plays during the historic era of August Wilson and Dean Lloyd Richards at Yale. “Lynn gives you complete people,” said Levette.
Singer Carol Maillard of Sweet Honey In The Rock opened the salute with a song of empowerment. Dr. Indira Etwaroo, Executive Director, Restoration Art & The Billie Holiday Theatre spoke out about the importance of women’s voices in theater, especially the voices of women of color. She discussed 50in50: Writing Women Into Existence, a project curated by playwright and Lynn Nottage mentee Dominique Morisseau. Speakers also included Mandy Hackett, Associate Artistic Director, The Public Theater and BRIC Media Arts Board members Toni Yuille Williams who recruited Lynn for the BRIC Board, and Emily Harney, BRIC Deputy Director for Programming Initiatives,
There were readings of plays from different stages in Nottage’s career. Her first New York production Crumbs From The Table of Joy had a surprise introduction by veteran actor Joe Morton, Scandals’ Papa Pope, who directed this play for Nottage at Second Stage Theatre in 1995. A moving monologue was performed by Mandi Madsen. “Lynn went from fledging playwright to Pulitzer Prize playwright,” remarked Morton. A scene from award-winning Intimate Apparel, the tale of a Black seamstress during the early 20th century, was performed by Lynda Gravatt. The powerful Ruined monologue was performed by Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Her current critically acclaimed Broadway drama Sweat had a performance by Tony nominee Michele Wilson.
“Her plays deal with the business of being good, bad and ugly in communities dealing with tumultuous events. Like all the greatest writers, she delves deeply in journey in the daily joys and pains of humanity. A legend in her own time with an incredibly beautiful mind,” pointed out Gordon Chambers, a Brown University friend and classmate, who is a Grammy winning songwriter (Anita Baker’s “I Apologize”) and the former entertainment editor of Essence Magazine. Chambers, who lives in Brooklyn, had a special salute in song.
Nottage is the recipient of a PEN/Laura Pels Master Playwright Award, Literature Award from The Academy of Arts and Letters, Columbia University Provost Grant, Doris Duke Artist Award, Steinberg “Mimi” Distinguished Playwright Award, Nelson A. Rockefeller Award for Creativity, The Dramatists Guild Hull-Warriner Award, the inaugural Horton Foote Prize,Helen Hayes Award, the Lee Reynolds Award, and the Jewish World Watch iWitness Award. Her
other honors include the National Black Theatre Fest’s August Wilson Playwriting Award, a Guggenheim Grant, Lucille Lortel Fellowship and Visiting Research Fellowship at Princeton University and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship.
“Lynn has remained humble in spirit as I remember on campus in Brown University in the late 80’s. I remember her always being soft-spoken, astute and possessing the powerful aura of a witness, an observer. A legend in her own time with an incredibly beautiful mind,” said Chambers. “She makes me incredibly proud.”
Balancing her career as a Columbia University professor and life as a mom, Nottage has a plethora of prolific projects exploring images of Black women in the works this year. She’s a producer and writer working with Spike Lee on the Netflix series of She’s Gotta Have It. The Secret Life of Bees, the famed film that starred Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys will have a musical adaption with the book by Nottage as part of the Powerhouse Theater summer season, which is presented by Vassar College and New York Stage and Film. Also, Nottage has an opera on Intimate Apparel in development.
As a child growing up in Bed Stuy, the Billie Holiday Theatre was her introduction to the power of Black theatre. Standing onstage and looking out into the audience of the newly renovated theatre, Nottage remarked: “I don’t think that I would be an artist if this stage didn’t exist.”