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Playwright Lynn Nottage wants you to deal with it

April 18, 2009 | 10:00 am


Lynn Nottage often writes about “warrior women,” no more so than the gutsy Congolese survivors in her hit play “Ruined” at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club. More than a few people would apply that appellation to the 44-year-old playwright herself. Just ask the Hollywood studio executives who got an earful when they approached her about doing a rewrite on a film about a group of young men coming to the United States from Sudan.

“They were tall and very dark-skinned,” Nottage recalls. “And yet there was no mention in the script of what their distinct appearance meant for these young men after they'd arrived in the United States. And they said to me, 'Well, we don't want to deal with racism, that's not part of their narrative.' And we got into a shouting match. And I said, 'How can you not deal with it, whether it comes from white folks or from African Americans who don't understand who they are!' And they maintained that the men themselves had said it wasn't important to them. And I replied,'They may not yet be able to articulate it, but I can assure that they can feel it, experience and live it!' "

No surprise, then (and to the disappointment of her agent): Nottage didn't get the job.

Although there was much to anger Nottage during her research and travels to Africa for “Ruined,” she says she wrote the play not out of rage, but out of love. “I don't think it would be watchable if it had been written in anger,” she says. “I love these women, I love their country, and I wanted to show the joy and beauty of Africa as well as the horror. I think there are writers who gain strength from anger, but it's important not to allow any emotion to be dominant in your writing. It's good to have a full range of emotions while writing, to have a very extensive palette.”

That range will also be evident in her new play “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” about an aging starlet and her black maid in 1930s Hollywood seeking salvation by being cast in a “Gone With the Wind”-type movie epic. The play was inspired in part by Nottage's fascination with pre-Hayes Code movies, like “Baby Face,” which featured an open and contemporary relationship between Barbara Stanwyck, as a very loose woman on the rise, and her black maid Chico (Theresa Harris).

“I think if Hollywood hadn't stepped in and self-regulated itself, these sorts of relationships would have been more inclusive,” she says.

Read more about Lynn Nottage in Sunday's Arts & Books section (just click here).

-- Patrick Pacheco

Photo: Lynn Nottage on the set of "Ruined." Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times