Since Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959, becoming one of the first plays by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway, only a handful of Black female playwrights have had a run on New York City's main stages. Playwright Lynn Nottage has enjoyed that prestige for her award-winning work Sweat, which premiered on Broadway in 2017, Clydes in 2021 and the currently running and commercially successful MJ the Musical.

Even with two Pulitzer Prizes under her belt—one for Sweat, the other for Ruined (2009)—Nottage acknowledges, "Awards are a wonderful and tricky thing, I feel enormously blessed and thankful to have been twice recognized. Affirmation is always welcomed, but once the fanfare has died down you still have to figure out how to get back to basics and continue to approach your practice with humility, honesty and grace. Now, I view the awards as a door to wider possibilities, and that door can easily be shut."

For Women's History Month, Nottage spoke about her writing process and how to open the doors to bring more Black female playwrights to Broadway.

EBONY: What is the voice and writing style you bring to your plays and productions?

Lynn Nottage: My voice is an extension of who I am as a thinker, conjurer, mother, teacher and artist. Finding my creative confidence has been an evolution, a process that has taken many years of trial and error. As a young writer, I assumed there was a right way to be a Black writer and leaned into memetic impulses, but over time I’ve discovered that my voice as an artist is the unique prism through which I filter our culture and most importantly my own truth. 

How do you decide the stories you want to tell, especially those that deal with the working class?

As a storyteller, I’ve always been interested in centering the voices of marginalized people, particularly working folx*. My first encounter with theater and storytelling was at my family’s kitchen table, which was populated by working people, primarily women, who had incredible stories of love, hardship and transcendence that spoke to their tenaciousness and resilience. I’ve spent my career trying to harness the raw, beautiful energy that I first felt when I was listening to my mother and her friends sharing their stories. The theater is a place where we can interrogate our beliefs, explore our mythology and celebrate our culture, and I have always wanted to create a safe, uncensored and unapologetic space where I that could happen.

Has the theater changed for Black women behind the scenes in the last two decades?

Thankfully, this has been a fertile, yet hard-fought moment for Black women in theater. We have so many dynamic and talented artists making work today, and it is exciting to see how invested they are in mentoring the next generation of young Black writers. When I began writing, the landscape was bleak, and it was an absolute battle to get my work onto the main stages of theaters. I hit wall after wall. I was often told by white mainstream institutions that there wasn’t a sufficient audience for my work, but the fact is those very theaters were not invested in cultivating diversity or building new audiences. And conversely, Black theaters at the time were not terribly interested in producing the works of Black female playwrights and also had to be pressured to do our work. Now, we have a handful of Black artistic directors like Dominique Morisseau, Nataki Garret, Hana S. Sharif and Patricia McGregor who running mainstream institutions. And they are using their power to reshape the American theater. We also have artistic leadership at Black theaters like Jonathan McCleary and Sade Lythcott, who are at the vanguard of change. It is an exciting moment in theater, a renaissance of sorts.

What can be done to bring more Black female playwrights to the stage? 

There is so much emphasis on what we see on our stages, that we often forget the equally important aspect of making theater, which is the people who are nurturing, producing, financing and uplifting the work behind the scenes. The gatekeepers and producers have tremendous power in theater, and they remain predominantly white men. Until that paradigm shifts, it will continue to be an enormous struggle to bring genuine diversity to our stages.  What can we do? We have to invest in training the next generation of Black women producers, marketeers, dramaturgs, arts administrators and philanthropists. Those are the folx who enabled the artists to make their work and without them, it will be difficult to create spaces that center Black women’s voices.

Myles Frost and cast in MJ the Musical. Image: Matthew Murphy.

How did you approach the MJ story, especially from a female perspective?

I’ve always been drawn to Michael as an artist and innovator. Like many people, his music is the soundscape of my formative years. When I was approached to write a musical, I wanted to focus on his incredible creative journey and examine the ingredients in his life and practice that gave shape to his music. As a team, we decided to use the frame of a documentary film crew who interview Michael about the making of his epic Dangerous Tour. This device allowed us to fluidly move through his creative process, but also ask key questions about creative evolution. The structure of the musical is a mixtape of his life, offering the audience a glimpse into the events and relationships that shaped him as an artist. I wanted to place a woman’s voice in the musical and Rachel, the director of the documentary, gave me an organic way of doing that.

What's your dream project to do next?

I’d love to make something that lives in the public realm that celebrates storytelling, which is free and accessible to all. What shape that will take remains an open-ended question that I endeavor to answer.

MJ the Musical starts its North American Tour in August 2023.