Brow Beat

“I Can Be Very, Very Funny”

An interview with two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage about her screwball comedy.

Lynn Nottage.
Lynn Nottage. Gregory Costanzo

Lynn Nottage is the only living American playwright to have won the Pulitzer Prize multiple times. Her first one came in 2009 for Ruined, a drama about a small bar in a mining town in the Congo that serves soldiers from both sides of that country’s civil war. She received her second Pulitzer in 2017 for Sweat, a drama about the downfall of Reading, Pennsylvania, that largely takes place in a bar frequented by union workers as they find themselves caught between solidarity and trying to make rent.

Yet there’s another side to Nottage. She’s also a keen satirist with an eye toward metatheatrical playfulness. Nowhere is this more on display than in her 2011 By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, currently being revived at the Signature Theatre in New York. Vera Stark tells the story of a little-known but much beloved black actress in Hollywood’s golden age. The first act is a screwball comedy in which Vera and several of her friends vie for roles in The Belle of New Orleans, a melodrama about a prostitute whose wealthy beau doesn’t realize she’s only passing for white. The second act ping-pongs between a talk show appearance by Vera in the 1970s and an academic panel about her work and legacy in the 2000s. What in lesser hands could feel more like a treatise than a play instead becomes a multifaceted and hilarious look at race, gender, colorism, and representation.

I spoke with Nottage about the difference between working in comedy and drama, how the conversation around representation has and hasn’t changed over the past decade, and why we just can’t quit golden age films.

Slate: This year the Signature Theatre in New York is reviving two older works of yours, Fabulation and By The Way, Meet Vera Stark. Why did you choose those plays?

Lynn Nottage: I’ve become so known for my tragedies, these very heavy, social realist plays, and I think people forget that I’m a satirist as well and that I can be very, very funny. I thought in this particular moment that we need some humor, and I thought, I don’t want to sit in rehearsal and feel like I’m being punched in the stomach. I just want something that’s going to make me laugh.

Do you think working in a comic mode lets you do different things that you can’t do in the social realist tragic mode?

Yeah I do. I think there’s a way in which you can enter and expose stereotypes when you’re deploying humor that becomes much more complicated in drama. You can press right up to the edge.

Jessica Frances Dukes and Heather Alicia Simms in the Signature Theatre's revival of By The Way, Meet Vera Stark
Jessica Frances Dukes and Heather Alicia Simms in the Signature Theatre’s revival of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Joan Marcus

When you sit down to write a play that’s in a satirical vein of comedy, do you say, “All right, this one’s a comedy,” and then sit down and write? How did you come to the decision for how the material is treated?

I always write two plays at the same time. I was writing Vera Stark when I was writing Ruined. I very specifically wanted to write something that didn’t require a certain kind of research. I could look at movies and sit down and write. I thought, I’m just going to write and see where it goes.

At first I wanted to do a Noises Off play, a deconstructed, Chitlin Circuit play looking at stereotypes. The first act would be a very traditional, funny, Chitlin Circuit play. The second act would be the actors talking about how they feel about being in that play. Then when I was beginning the play, it happened to coincide with a film festival on TCM looking at African American cinema in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s. As I was watching, I became hyperaware of all of these magnificent performers who would appear on screen for 20 seconds, steal the scene, and then disappear. I thought, Who are these people? These brilliant comics and these brilliant actors who have been so thoroughly marginalized that most of us don’t know their names, and yet they’re omnipresent in these movies. In particular, someone like Theresa Harris. Once I knew who she was, I certainly saw her in every film. There she is, she has a career. She’s working. She worked from the ’30s to the ’60s, I wanna say, with the majority of Americans never knowing who she was or never giving thought.

Have you always been a film buff?

I love classic Hollywood, and in particular I love the screwball comedies, which is why the first act is basically constructed like a screwball comedy. It’s meant to be really fast and irreverent, and it almost doesn’t give the audience time to think, you know.

I miss the pace of those old screwball movies.

Yeah, but the other thing with the speed is that you realize when watching them today there’s this embedded misogyny and racism. It goes by and you don’t have time. “Wait, what did they say?” It’s only at the end when you think, Oh my God.

Yeah, it’s like, “Did he just say he beats his wife?”

I think on some level, as a writer, when I see these images of African American women in classic Hollywood, on one hand, I’m really super excited to see them on screen, but then there’s this part of me that’s devastated because I know the personal sacrifices and humiliations. The small humiliations that they had to go through in order just to have their image blazoned on the screen.

One thing I always enjoy about your work is how your characters have a clear, almost ideological point of view about the play’s themes, which they’re able to articulate, but they aren’t just mouthpieces. Like Leroy, who is identified as part of the New Negro movement but also feels like a real person at the same time. How do you go about building your characters?

All of us are political and we talk about politics. I spend a lot of time thinking, What would Leroy in that moment of time be struggling with? rather than trying to have him be a mouthpiece for my 21st-century ideas. I thought, Just be authentic to those characters and to their sensibilities, and then you don’t have to worry about it. So in 1933, what would black actresses be talking about? They’d be talking about their frustrations about getting work. “There’s no good roles for us.” It’s the same conversations that actresses are having today.

I feel like there is a conversation about race and gender and identity and it’s spilled into a larger forum than a decade ago—

You think so? I don’t think so.

Maybe it’s just on Twitter.

I felt like there was a real conversation, particularly in the theater world. At the moment in time when I wrote Vera Stark, it was just before this explosion of African American writers in television. Before Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. So there was still a level of extreme frustration with the quality of the roles that were being offered to African American women. You were the judge, you were a prostitute, you were a crack addict, you were the angry mother, but above and beyond that, there just weren’t that many offerings. When I would sit down with folks, that is what we would talk about. “How do we change that?” Having that conversation, I thought, What are the roots of that?

I was also interested in our own complicity in shaping those cultural stereotypes. We participated at some level in our own destruction because we played these roles. You look at someone like Lincoln Perry, who was Stepin Fetchit. When he began his career in black vaudeville, he was involved in an entire ecosystem that involved black actors, and he was the clown. He was a brilliant clown, but then Hollywood saw him, took him out of that context, and he becomes the only representation of blackness in the cinema, and therefore becomes this cultural bomb.

Peak TV has given opportunities to more black writers in Hollywood. There are more black roles in Hollywood. The text of the play is the same, but do you feel like its context has shifted? Does the play feel the same to you when you hear it today, or does it feel different because it’s seven years later?

I was afraid: “Is this still going to be relevant, or is it going to feel somewhat dated?” But I do think that the conversation that the play is having with the culture is still relevant. I think that some of the struggles that those characters experience are still very, very real.

It’s not going away anytime soon.

I do see the play as being about four black women who, based on skin color—their lives take very different directions. Around the time Vera Stark was being produced, there was a casting call for Straight Outta Compton. It was such an excellent example of cultural stereotyping. Basically it said we’re looking for pretty women. Pretty women should be light-skinned, biracial. They broke it down by color. We’re looking for hoochie mamas who should be cinnamon in color and we’re looking for whores and crackheads who should be black, dark-skinned. I’m totally paraphrasing, but that effectively is what it was. Essentially it pointed to archetypes that were shaped in 1933 on the silver screen. Those are the women in the play. It’s Gloria. It’s Anna Mae. It’s Vera Stark, and it’s Lottie. Those are the archetypes that 70 years later are still being perpetuated in cinema, and that was the proof.