"I mustered all the strength that I had and marched over to that playground. I said to my brother and Cinqué, ‘Who is the little kid who took your money? Is it that that one? Was it that one?' And then finally they say, ‘It was him.' And so I walked over to that little kid. ‘You took my little brother's money and I want it back.' He refused. I pried his little fingers open and inside of his hand was one and five dollar Monopoly money."
Lynn Nottage is the first woman ever to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, and she’s one of the most important voices writing for the stage and screen today, with works that include Infinite Apparel, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Ruined, Sweat, and MJ: The Musical, an upcoming show on the life of Michael Jackson. She often writes about characters in private, intimate spaces, where and how real people really talk. It’s a process that began in her hometown of New York City, where she was a girl growing up in the Boerum Hill section of pre-gentrified Brooklyn. On the surface, she says, it was the kind of neighborhood people passed through to get to other neighborhoods in 1970s. But to Lynn, it was the setting for her story, starting on her block and in the brownstone where her parents, Wally and Ruby Nottage, raised her and her brother and hosted family, friends, artists, and activists. There was lots of noise in the house, especially in the kitchen. Lynn still lives in that house today, a wife, mother, professor, and playwright surrounded by the memories and materials of her ancestors.
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Original Composition: Sterling Steffen
Illustrations – Nick Gregg
Etan Patz Disappearance: Original News Report, Pat Harper, WPIX 11, May 28, 1979
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
A special thanks, too, to our co-presenter on this special New York City feature series, the Museum of the City of New York.
ep. 5. Lynn Nottage – Boerum Hill, Brooklyn
March 30, 2021
Intro: Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York, with generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at yourhometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Lynn Nottage: My brother was in the playground, which was on Pacific Street between Third Avenue and Nevins. And he was playing with his friends Cinqué Lee, who is Spike Lee’s brother. And they were by themselves. I remember the two of them coming home and crying. They told my mother, “We were in the playground and these little boys stole our money.” And my mother was like, “Oh my god.” And she’s like, “Lynn, you go back to that playground and you get their money.” And I was like, oh my god. I was like okay. But that was the role I occupied. I had to do those things.
And so on this particular day, I mustered all the strength that I had and marched over to that playground. I said to my brother and Cinqué, “Who is the little kid who took your money?” I’m like, “Is it that that one? Was it that one?” And then finally they say, “It was him.” And so I walked over to that little kid. I’m like, “You took my little brother’s money and I want it back.” And he refused. And then I pried his little fingers open and inside of his hand was one and five dollar Monopoly money.
Kevin: They weren’t real bills.
Lynn: But I remember it was like pink and white. I was like oh my god, I went through all of this for Monopoly money.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked a lot, but the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us and what happened to them there, before we met the world and the world met us. I’m Kevin Burke, and this is Your Hometown.
My guest is the playwright Lynn Nottage, one of the most important voices writing for the stage and screen today. In fact, Lynn is the very first woman ever to win not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. One was for her play Ruined, which she set in and around a bar and brothel in wartime Congo. And the other was for Sweat, which completely captured the hollowing out of a factory town in Pennsylvania in our current deindustrializing landscape. In both cases, Lynn opens our eyes and ears to characters in private, intimate spaces where, and how, real people really talk.
It’s a process that began for her in her hometown of New York City, where she was a little girl growing up in the Boerum Hill section of pre-gentrified Brooklyn. And on the surface, she says, Boerum Hill was the kind of neighborhood where people would pass through to get to other neighborhoods — this is the 1970s. But to Lynn it was the setting for her story, starting on her block and the brownstone where her parents, Wally and Ruby Nottage, raised her and her brother and hosted family, friends, artists, and activists. There was always a lot of noise in the house, filled with people, especially in the kitchen. Now Lynn still lives in that very house today, a wife, mother, professor and very busy playwright, surrounded by the memories and materials of her ancestors. And it was from that very space that she spoke to me on a snowy morning about the sights, sounds, and voices of her coming-of-age years in Brooklyn.
Lynn: On my particular block, which is Dean Street, [and] made famous in Jonathan Lethem’s book Fortress of Solitude — when I was growing up, it was dominated by boarding houses. There was a sprinkling of communes; lots of kids were on the block. It was a time when there was still a bus that passed down. As a result, there weren’t a lot of cars, so that on weekends we could flood out of our houses and actually play in the street.
We’d play capture the flag and kick the can and all of those wonderful games that you played when you were young. And in terms of the soundtrack of the neighborhood — and I don’t know whether this memory is accurate — but I remember that there was always salsa music that was blaring from boom boxes or open windows. And I remember at night at one of the boarding houses, there are men who would form this drum circle and they’d play the congas and the bongos. And seeing it just always felt like there’s a lot of ambient, festive sound in the community. It was really very alive.
[we hear music]
Lynn: And in my home, it also felt vibrant. Our life centered around the table in my kitchen, which was this vibrantly colored Formica table. It was orange, it was bright orange, and it’s still there. And I look at it and just
Kevin: This is the 1970s.
Lynn: This is the 1970s, it seems like such an odd, wonderful choice. But it’s this artifact that has remained, it’s like the one artifact of my childhood that’s completely intact, this Formica table. But my mother, who —
Kevin: It’s still there?
Lynn: It’s still there. It’s still, the Formica table—
Kevin: Oh, that’s fantastic.
Lynn: It is still very much there. And my daughter and her partner are living down in that space. And every once in a while, I go and visit that table, which they hate. But I have this real fondness and connection to — just because of what it represents. It was this communal space where my mother, who was a schoolteacher, after work she and her friends would gather. And they [would] drink this wine, there [was] always a jug, a half gallon of Mondavi wine that was sitting just beneath the table.
And they would do their best to finish it every single day. And my mother would get a new one. And her friends were educators like herself, civil servants, and a sprinkling of politicians and activists. And I just really, as a kid, admired the passion and genuine commitment that they had to each other. And my grandmother also after work — she was this very petite woman, somewhere between 4’10 and 4’11 depending on how she liked to describe herself. And she’d wander in
Kevin: This is your mother’s mother?
Lynn: This is my mother’s mother who lived on —
Lynn: Yeah. Waple Newton, who lived in Crown Heights. But every single day she’d come and she’d spend time with us. It felt very much like a meeting space for women.
Kevin: Where were you in the room and what was your piquing curiosity when you were listening to these voices?
Lynn: I would be at the orange Formica table, but there was a dining room table that was also in the room. And more often I would sit there and do my homework because there was a little distance between me and them. But I loved eavesdropping and listening to what they had to say. And then my mother was an enormous gossip, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t have friends who weren’t gossips. I remember one of her friends, Fanny Dickerson, who was a best friend. Fanny was also a school teacher. And she was from the South and had this wonderful accent, and she just loved to gossip.
Kevin: About school?
Lynn: About everything. I mean, it’s what folks do. You gossip about what’s happening at your schools. You gossip about what’s happening in your neighborhood. You gossip about your friend circle. And Fanny just was this beautiful, gregarious person whose voice, to this day, still resonates in my head. I am a playwright, and I often think that the way in which I write dialog really comes from active listening and just how colorful the language was in my mother’s circle. My grandmother was a great raconteur, and so often after a few glasses of wine, she would have the floor. And she could just tell stories in the most beautiful, rapturous way. And I really think that in some respects that my grandmother’s art of storytelling is the foundation for my art practice.
Kevin: And Lynn, if you could walk downstairs to that Formica countertop and be in 1970, 1971, or 1972, what would you most want to know, that you can’t know now, but you wish you could go back and say, I’ve figured something out. What would you most want to listen for or find out that that’s now gone?
Lynn: I think that one of the things that I would want to know is more about the emotional reality of my family because that’s something that’s children that we’re not as attuned to. What was my mother going through in that moment when there was so much social upheaval? It was the midst of the feminist movement, the Black Power movement. And I just want to know where her heart was, and I think the same is true for my father as well. What were their relationships to the moment?
Kevin: Is there a particularly vivid story, Lynn, when you think about those times, for example, your grandmother speaking or Fanny, that you held on to, and that you can tell now stuck with you and lodged deep inside of you?
Lynn: There are a few things that stay with me for Aunt Fanny. She often spoke about her life down south and the fact that before she moved to New York and became a teacher, she actually lived on a farm [with] her family of sharecroppers and they picked cotton. And for whatever reason, just the notion of this woman who was in this urban setting being connected to the land in that way and something that felt like a very ancient, painful practice, that story still resonates.
And my grandmother, she was very social, she was a club joiner. She was a Zeta, which is a sorority. Often her stories had to do with people she encountered. She was born here, but her mother was born in Barbados. And one of her favorite things to do was reminisce about the trips that she took back to the old island and the differences that she experienced of being a New Yorker with this Brooklyn accent who was plopped in the middle of this very rural community in Barbados. And she just loved conversation. A lot of times it had to do with what was happening in the world, and particularly for my mother, who was an activist and a community organizer.
I think as I got older and was really able to do much more active listening, what I realized they were often talking about was community organizing and boycotts. I remember at some point that they decided that they were all going to boycott the Rolling Stones because of language they had on their album that they felt was racist and misogynist.
And my mother at some point decided that she was going to run for office. And she did. She became the county committee person. And her circle began to shift, [it] went from schoolteachers and her friends [to] more activism and community organizers and politicians. And those conversations took on a real different kind of urgency and tenor.
Kevin: Yeah, my wife grew up in Carroll Gardens. guess back then it was all called South Brooklyn. The neighborhoods really weren’t named, although I think Boerum Hill was named right around the time you were born in the 60s as a neighborhood. But my father-in-law, who was a longshoreman and then kind of entered the court system and worked in the courts in Brooklyn, he talked about just how powerful the district leaders were in Brooklyn, Meade Esposito and people like that, I mean they really held a lot of sway.
Lynn: Yeah, my mother was a district leader for a period of time and she took the position quite seriously. The district leaders at that time were also community organizers, and many of the politicians looked to them to help communicate with the constituency. But also, when they were running for election, they really needed the support of these people who were closer to the ground.
[we hear music]
Kevin: You had these voices around you that you were imbibing and that become part of you, but also you have a voice too. From a very young age, I think five, you and your little brother Aaron would perform plays [and] little skits for your parents and their friends. Thinking about those voices in the house, can you give us the production notes, if you will?
Lynn: I think that on some level, I always was writing plays and those first plays were conjured in the living room of my house. I wrote plays for myself where I was the protagonist and my brother Aaron, who is three years younger than me, was the villain. We have an interior staircase, which is somewhat unusual in the brownstone. So we have steps that come right into the living room. And chances are when we were performing the pieces, we just made a grand descent down those steps into the living room space. And generally, the performance would take place at the base of the steps. Inevitably, my brother and I would be dressed in our colorful pajamas or our bathrobes and we’d perform some sort of sketch that involved a princess and a villain or–
Kevin: Some variation of a theme.
Lynn: Which would last anywhere from five to ten minutes until my mother would say enough.
Kevin: That was the hook of it.
Lynn: That was the hook and she would be like enough. Or there would be applause at some point that the adults all agreed upon and we would be ushered back up the steps and told that children should not be seen or heard.
Kevin: I’m picturing like the kid in The Sound of Music when they say “goodnight” or The Cosby Show where they perform on the staircase.
Lynn: If only we were that charming and talented. Our performances were not as delightful as the von Trapp family singers.
Kevin: But you get credit for originality. It doesn’t sound like you were just mimicking something. You were actually creating the story.
Lynn: Yeah, we were creating
Kevin: It wasn’t just like an adaptation of something.
Lynn: Somewhere in the house, there are cassette tapes of some of these early attempts at those dramas.
Kevin: Is that right?
Lynn: Yeah, I have to figure out where they are because I remember getting a tape recorder when I was young and I became obsessed with not just recording my own thoughts, but also recording my parent’s dinner party conversations. And I–
Kevin: That’s amazing.
Lynn: Isn’t it
Kevin: So you were documenting it.
Lynn: I used to go around my parents’ dinner table when they had parties. Just in my head, I suddenly had an image of all those beautiful people surrounding the table. And there was one man in particular, Paco, who was from Ponce, Puerto Rico who just had the most resonant, deep, beautiful voice. And I loved taking the microphone and having him say “hello, hello.”
Kevin: Have you gone back and listened?
Lynn: I haven’t. I’m so afraid to play those tapes because of the fragility of the tape material. I have to figure out where I can get them transferred so that I can listen. I used that tape player to play music beneath some of our performances. I mean, they were very well thought through and we memorized our lines and we really fully committed to our performances.
Kevin: That’s awesome. And your little brother, did he have much choice in this or is he on board with you?
Lynn: It’s interesting because I think my brother right now is a Brooklyn D.A., which, as you know, is very performative. I mean, the courtroom is a theater, a different kind of theater space, and so I think underneath it all, there’s part of him that is really still an actor. And so he was always an incredibly willing participant. I never had to twist his arm or nudge him. I’d say, here’s your part, this is what you say. And we go on, now.
[we hear music]
Lynn: I grew up in a generation where kids were free range chickens. Like the door was open, you were given a little shove, and you went outside. We lived very much outdoors. I was a bookish kid. I think part of the reason I became a playwright is that I’m an introverted extrovert, which I think is the definition of playwriting; people who spend a lot of time sort of writing, but then we really need community to complete our task. We’re collaborators by nature. And I think that as a kid, that’s fundamentally who I was. I love to read books. I loved my time in my room. But then inevitably there was a major–
Kevin: You had your own room.
Lynn: I had my own room. And inevitably there was a moment where I just wanted to be outside. And I was very, very fortunate that our yard was the nexus point for all the kids on the block. It was concrete, it was open, it was almost in the middle of the block. And so the kids who lived on that side would come. The kids on the other side would come and they’d all meet. And generally, the kids played on their side of the block. But my yard was the one place where everyone could come together and play skelly and stoopball and double dutch. And it just was this really beautiful space that I spent a lot of my time in. But that said, there were playgrounds in the community that I would go to. And you still had old ladies with pillows who would sit in their windows. And if you were misbehaving, they’d say, “Lynn!” More often it was my brother. “Aaron. stop doing that.” And they’d report it back to your mother. Or if they saw you wandering someplace where you’re not supposed to be, they’d be like, “I’m going to tell your mother.” You felt like there were really eyes and ears within the community that were taking care of all of us. The fascinating thing about the architecture of the brownstone is the stoop, which is designed in some way, like risers for an audience to sit on.
Lynn: You would sit on those steps and you’d watch life go by, whether it was life in New York or whether it was life that was flowing up and down your streets. And the stoops were communal spaces. It’s where, when you were very young, you could sit and your parents could see you. But as you got older and you’re teenagers, it’s a place where you’d hang out. You’d sit on the stoops until the wee hours of the morning just talking to friends and gathering. But the stoop was also a place where you, we’d play stoopball. And I remember using it in different ways; back then you had to be much more imaginative in the games that you played because you didn’t have all these electronics, an iPad, a Game Boy, and all the things that kids are playing with now. And so things like a refrigerator box could give us at least two weeks of incredible fun. And I remember that on the stoop we’d ride the refrigerator box down the stoop. And then we could make the refrigerator box into a clubhouse and we could paint on it. Yeah, the stoop was this really flexible space.
Lynn: We also would venture forth as like a little posse of kids from the community. We’d go to Coney Island as a group. We’d get on the train and travel together.
Kevin: On the F train.
Lynn: On the F train, like 10 years old. If we were really adventurous, we’d go up to Times Square, be really scared, and then get on the train and come back home. We’d go to Central Park and we’d go to Prospect Park and the Village. We just had a very different relationship to New York City than I think kids today. And I think a lot of that really changed for the disappearance of Etan Patz, the kid in SoHo who was on his way to school and just disappeared.
[we hear an original news report: Pat Harper, WPIX 11 (May 28, 1979):
Pat Harper: 7:55 last Friday morning Julie Patz had said she took her son downstairs. She came back up and watched from this fire escape as he passed down West Broadway toward the bus stop where a group of other children and parents were waiting. She never dreamed he didn’t get on that bus, not until four o’clock in the afternoon when he failed to return home.]
Lynn: It’s so fascinating. It’s like you can — that’s the demarcation between the moment when New York felt, dangerous as it was, it felt safe. Because it was a community and then that was a line where we thought, oh but we can’t trust the community. I’m raising my children in the house that I grew up in. And they don’t have the same relationship to the community that I had. They don’t roam now. My son is now 11. COVID has really altered everything. But he was just beginning to flex his independence and wander.
The other thing is that there was a real divide between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Manhattan was the city. And for those of us who grew up in Brooklyn, we were considered to be incredibly provincial; it was a bridge and tunnel. There are people on my block when I was growing up who even when I was in college, had never been to Manhattan. And we live one stop away. It’s not like we’re out in Bensonhurst.
Kevin: You can walk across the Manhattan Bridge, you’re there.
Lynn: You can walk the bridge. It had a very small-time vibe that doesn’t exist anymore because now Brooklyn is hip. But we also took enormous pride in where we came from. You think about how Spike Lee really owned his being a Brooklyn knight and we really —
Kevin: It was his brand
Lynn: His brand, but that was all of our brand. Just like what we had. What bonded us was that we lived in this place that was a little bit tough, that was regional, we had accents that were slightly different. We had more of an immigrant sensibility, working class sensibility, and we really clung to that. And so when you went to the Village, it just felt very different.
Kevin: Yeah. And was there ever a time when you felt that danger was lurking around you or that you were in danger as a kid?
Lynn: You know, it was New York in the 70s and 80s. It was very different from the New York it is right now. I mean, the city was undergoing an enormous financial crisis that was affecting every aspect of this city, from the transit system, the educational system, to just the way in which your garbage was picked up and your streets were swept. And our neighborhood when we were growing up was a high crime neighborhood. There was a lot of prostitution. I remember even in like in the mid to late 70s, there was an article in the Daily News about like the hot points of prostitution that — I was really shocked like the corner of my block was what?
Kevin: No kidding.
Lynn: No —
Kevin: It was a shock to you but you saw —
Lynn: Oh, yeah. Of course, you saw. There was so much. You walk down Nevins street, it just was like the corridor. It’s kind of like [how] 11th Avenue used to be in Manhattan. Truckers just knew that this is the space that you trap the travel. But our house was robbed eight times when I was growing up. Twice when I was there, once when my brother and I were sleeping,
Kevin: Twice when you were in the house?
Lynn: Twice when I was in the house. Once when my brother and I were sleeping, my parents had gone someplace. It was just after Christmas because all the Christmas gifts [were there], and someone had climbed through the table — no they had climbed down the fire escape, which is in the back of the house, climbed through my parents’ bedroom window. And my brother and I were actually in my parents’ bed. And one of the men said to me when I awakened and he’s like a “Shh little girl” and he’s like, “Go back to sleep.” And I actually went back to sleep. And I remember when my parents got home and they awakened us just like “what happened?” I was like well a man climbed in the window and told me to go back to sleep. And they ended up like taking all of my father’s Hi-Fi equipment and the Christmas gifts. They just kind of cleaned us. That said, it’s like as a kid, you just knew that at some point you would get mugged and someone would take your, what we called, your train pass, or your bus pass, or your hat or they’d rifle in your pockets and take your 25 cents. So it didn’t feel like such a big deal. It’s just something that happened.
Kevin (voiceover): Okay, so those are the kinds of dangers kids like Lynn had to watch out for in New York at that time — street level crimes that could sometimes come into the window. Other times, though, a very different kind of danger entered a family story — not in the form of crime, but the stealing of one’s own health and livelihood.
Lynn: When I was about 12 years old, and I [am] trying to remember exactly when it happened, my father was carrying some slate with one of his friends and his friend tripped and the slate fell into my father’s abdomen. He fell back, it hurt, but he was fine. And I have such a vivid, specific memory of us going to Prospect Park after that and playing Frisbee, like just running and him diving. Then when he came home that night, he complained of being in pain and then he didn’t move for two years. He ended up being in the hospital for a period of time. He had some reconstructive surgery and was finally able to walk; he shrank a couple of inches but it really was devastating for the family.
My mother was a school teacher. She was paying a mortgage in the brownstone. Granted, it’s not what it [is today], because they paid very little for this house at the time. But still, it was a staggering cost for someone like her at the time. Both my brother and I were at school. We were going to the St. Ann’s, which, it’s not the St. Ann’s of today, but it was still a private school.
Kevin: It’s a private school in Brooklyn Heights.
Lynn: And we had scholarships. And so she wasn’t paying a ton. But still, it was just a little too much for it to survive. And our lives changed. My mother had to take a second job. She was working day and night to help us get through the moment. I switched from private to public school. I still think about those hard times. One of my memories that sticks with me — because my mother was working day and night and often we’d come home and she wasn’t able to cook dinner. So we ended up eating, for a period of two years, all of our meals at this restaurant called Steve’s, which was a Greek diner run by this flamboyant guy named Steve, who always wore like a baby blue suit. And he greeted you. We’d have our hamburger and our French fries. And we knew all the waitresses, who still had bouffants with cotton candy and who were smoking as they were serving. But they were our family. I still have this wonderful memory of when my mother would finally be exhausted and be finished, Steve would always bring her a Rob Roy and he’d say, “There you go, my love” And she’d drink her Rob Roy and then have a second and then we’d go home.
Kevin: Yeah. There’s a character in your 2017 Pulitzer-Prize winning play Sweat, Stan, who has an injury from work.
Kevin: And you see its effect on him. He’s a bartender at the gathering spot there. And I thought about the connection between him and your dad because you saw the consequences of that on someone’s life. But you’re a kid. You’re coming into adolescence and your dad is sort of stuck there. It must have changed you too.
Lynn: It changed me. I think that one of the things that it made me was a worker. From the time I was 12 years old, I began working like a maniac. I babysat. I always had my own money because I knew at that moment I couldn’t ask my mother for money because she didn’t have it.
Kevin: And those are the ages when you need it.
Lynn: when you need it.
Kevin: For the movies
Lynn: And so I began babysitting sitting. I babysat for a woman who was recently divorced. She had three little boys and she still was young at the time and wanted to have a life. I ended up babysitting for them maybe four nights a week and she’d stay out really late. And it was great. She was my source of income.
When I was in high school, I got a job at the Phoenix newspaper, which was a local Brooklyn circular, which had a liberal bent. And, you know, this grizzled old editor named Mike Armstrong ran it like an old newspaper man. And we had manual typewriters and we hit our deadlines. It was like click, click, click. I ended up working at the Phoenix all through much of high school and through college. Then I switched from The Phoenix to The Villager, which he also owned, [it] was its sister paper in The Village Voice. And that, for me, was really formative in terms of my identity as a writer and my interest in research and journalism and how to immerse yourself in a culture that’s different than your own. And I also think that stems from having to go to work, and having to have a certain level of agency at a very young age. I felt like I just don’t want to be a burden. And I wasn’t. I just have made my way in the world and I feel an immense pride in that, like for not having to be dependent.
Kevin (voiceover): Lynn was anything but dependent as a teenager in Brooklyn. While working, she also had to commute a long way to school each day. We’re talking on the A train, the subway, all the way from her neighborhood to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, way up in Manhattan. From there, she went to Brown University and the Yale School of Drama, and when she returned to live and work in New York City, it was in Manhattan, not in her childhood home in Brooklyn. That was the plan anyway.
Kevin: One thing I want to fast forward to is you begin writing plays in the 90s after working at Amnesty International and you’re getting your feet wet as a playwright. And then something happens. You move home. Your trajectory is out of the city, but then you come back to that brownstone on Dean Street. And what brings you back there is that your mother is very ill. You talked about this. She was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease and you were pregnant at the time. And I’m trying to think about what it was like for you to be caring for your mother, the one who had nurtured you in that space as you were getting set to become a mother. And just sort of what that was like in terms of your own path, your own identity.
Lynn: It was an impossible moment when I returned home. When I left Brooklyn, which I left really in 1986, at a moment when New York was at the height of the AIDS crisis and the crack epidemic, it just felt dark in ways that my spirit couldn’t manage. I thought I’m just not going to come back. I’m going to land someplace else. I want an apartment with lots of light that’s far away from where I grew up. And I ended up living on the Upper West Side and then moving to 110th Street, where I had a beautiful view of St. John the Divine in a rent stabilized pre-war building. And I thought, I’d hit the jackpot. There’s no way
Kevin: The promised land
Lynn: The promised land like this is it, his big, solid, airy apartment. And I had just left working at Amnesty International. I was trying to figure out what kind of life I could make as an artist. I had recently married. I was pregnant and my mother was diagnosed, as you mentioned, with Lou Gehrig’s disease. And she called me one day and she said, “I don’t think I can go [through] this alone.” It’s such an insidious, impossible disease which robs you slowly of your ability to move any of the muscles in your body. Eventually, your throat closes up and you can’t breathe. And so I realized, I just love my mother. And even though I don’t want to move back to Brooklyn, we decided to move back and we did a slight renovation and had the very difficult task of asking the tenants who had literally lived in the apartment for like 40 years — I mean, they were there almost as long as my parents were in the apartment, and I remember it was three sisters who had moved from North Carolina when they were like 18, 19, 20. And so they had grown up in this house and only one was left, Carrie and her husband. And we had to ask them to leave. It was 1997 and they were paying $400 rent. And I knew they’re never going to find that again, have a two-bedroom apartment for $400. Fortunately for them, they had saved enough money from the low rent to actually buy a place. So it has a happy ending in that case.
But we moved back and it was hard because we’re living in a place, trying to renovate it and make it livable for us, while I was caring for my mother, who literally needed 24-hour care. And then I had my baby. And so I was changing my mother’s diaper and changing my baby’s diaper and just under a great deal of stress. We moved back and it ended up being the right choice and the best choice. We’ve now been here, my mother died in 1997 [so] since then. And we’ve really built a new community, and the community, of course, in even the 23 years that we’ve been here, keeps rolling over, shifting, and reconfiguring. But we’re here, as are our neighbors who live directly across the street, who also grew up in the house. It’s like we’re the two African-American families standing. We’re like hey; we see each other and there’s this real connection and bond. Like, we’re not going to sell our homes like everyone else did.
Kevin: You’ve talked specifically about the seeds of your playwriting and how in some ways your playwriting has its origins in the gaze of your mother. Your mother’s gaze, I think, is the way that you describe it. And that for you, it was a looking glass as a kid. And I wanted to just pause there and ask you about that gaze and that looking glass and what you meant to convey by that and what that gaze meant to you.
Lynn: And talking about my mother’s gaze, I’m really speaking about all of the unspoken in the experiences of Black women in America; going further back than my mother to my grandmother, who were women of a specific era, who were able, because of circumstances to fully actualize. And they have so much they experienced and so much complexity, which they didn’t articulate. And I think that my practice really stems from my desire to want to give voice to what got unsaid.
Kevin: And then when you put that in the story of your mother’s life, which, just for context for people, you were only in your early 30s at this time. This is very young to lose a parent and [it’s] really hard; and also to see the way that she died through Lou Gehrig’s disease is so painful. I’m thinking about the voices you talked about before in the house and how animated and full it was, how active she was and that gaze, and how and in the end, you’re left only with that gaze, with someone who’s dying from that disease. The voice goes. And so what was it like to see her go from that full embodiment of life to losing her voice that was so important to your ear as a kid.
Lynn: Well, it’s really painful to watch someone who you love so much and who lived a very robust, animated life, lose the ability to move and eventually lose the ability to speak. And she had this incredibly rich, beautiful voice. It’s like one of my favorite aspects with my mother. And I think it’s what made her so popular, is that she had this lovely laugh that just came from deep down that just lit up a room. And she had the voice of an actress, even though she never acted. She just had an instrument that had a beautiful quality. And eventually, before she died, the only thing that she could use was her eyes and we’d work with an eye chart. And it was really laborious for her to sort of blink out in a sentence. And I remember one of the last things that she blinked out was that she loved my daughter Ruby. She just said, “I love you” to her. I remember after she did, I had to drop the chart and weep. And she’s like, no, no, no, trying to say lift it up, lift it up.
And I didn’t have the strength. But it was in those moments, very hard to navigate the emotional space that’s required when you’re slowly letting go of all of the parts of someone that you love. And it’s really fascinating. You talk about someone’s relationship to the house. My mother had wanted to die in the home. And in the moment that she was dying, I sort of panicked and I made the choice to call the ambulance. And when they arrived, I’m like you can’t have her, I’m going to keep her. They were like now that we’re here, we’re going to have to take her. And so it was like this tug of war. And they took her to the hospital. And I because I was her health proxy, made the decision not to have her resuscitated. And strangely enough, she was supposed to die in an hour and she held on for eight hours until all of her friends and family could get to the hospital. And the very last person to arrive, which was eight hours later, was her mother. My mother was an only child. And literally the moment my grandmother stepped into a room and we formed this beautiful circle, we said the Lord’s Prayer, and she literally very peacefully died.
We returned from the hospital maybe an hour after that. And we walked into the house and the telephone rang. And it was a friend of hers, Shirley, who she hadn’t spoken to probably in ten years. And I picked up the telephone. And Shirley says, “Is your mother okay?” And I’m like, “Why do you ask?” She said, “I literally was standing in my kitchen. I turned around and saw your mother there.” And I said, “What did she say?” She said, “It’s okay.” And I thought, oh that’s what I needed to hear because I was feeling so much guilt over having made this decision to rip her body out of this house and have her have a death that she didn’t want in the hospital. And then moments after she said it was okay, our boiler, which was the most ancient boiler in New York City, exploded, it just went boom. And the entire house shook. And this fissure, like ran all the way up through the house. And then the wall strangely began to weep. And so all this water, all the way down — and I was like, wow, it’s like this is a Marquez moment, like a magical realism moment, which my mother is speaking to us.
Kevin: What a force. And she was the house.
Lynn: She was the house. Somehow, she made her presence known, and that her connection with this space was so deep and intense that she just left with a bang.
[we hear music]
Kevin: And Lynn, I understand that you have written about this in some way, there’s a play Emperor Breathes, The Emperor and the Scribe about this dynamic and your mother, but you haven’t released it to the world yet.
Lynn: No, I haven’t.
Kevin: I’m wondering about that and what about that particular story that you’ve told is leaving you with that feeling that it’s not ready? And how will you know when you are ready?
Lynn: When I was working on The Emperors Breathe — I’m trying to even remember because the whole time was such a blur because I was a new mother and I was dealing with all of the biggest emotions that one experiences in life, but at once. And so I can’t remember whether I was writing it while my mother was dying or whether I wrote it just after. But the play was still infused with all of what I was feeling, which was the complicated emotions that you have when a parent dies. It’s despair; it’s liberation; it’s guilt. It’s all those things that you have to reconcile. And that’s just part of the grieving process. And so I did what I do, which is to pour that energy into writing. I created this play, which was called The Emperor and The Scribe. And it should have been abundantly clear to me that it was about me and my mother, but it wasn’t.
And I had this experience like a year, maybe it was a year and a half, after my mother died. I was invited to go to a conference and I believe it was the University of Michigan or maybe the University of Wisconsin. It was on the lake and very cold. And it was a conference of African-American playwrights and they said, “Do you want to read a new play?” And I’m like, “I have a new play. It hasn’t been shared.” And so we rehearse that particular piece. I remember thinking oh god why did I even come? This feels like it’s premature and I’m not really ready to reenter this realm and to be working on my writing because I’m still healing. And we read the play and it read rather well. afterwards I said to the moderator, “You know, I really just don’t want to talk about why I wrote this play, because it came out of such a deep personal space that I think it will be painful.” And she put me on stage by myself and she handed me a microphone. There were like 500 people. And this light was shining on me. And the first question she asked is, “Why did you write this play?” And I remember being so frustrated and angry that I burst into tears as I went to explain why I wrote it. And I realized oh I really haven’t mourned in this way. And I sobbed. I literally couldn’t stop sobbing. And there were 500 people watching me. And really recently I was somewhere and a woman said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I was a woman who literally climbed out of the audience, went on the stage, and I helped you off.” And I’m like “oh thank you.” And then I promptly put that play in a box and never looked at it again.
Kevin (voiceover): By the time we spoke, Lynn had lived at least three different acts in her Brooklyn brownstone. There was the little girl listening in the kitchen. There was the caretaker for her mother as she lay dying. Then there was the Lynn who lived with her dad for many years before he died, much more recently. And then there’s the Lynn of today, of now, the mother, professor and playwright living and working and raising a family during this terrible long pandemic.
And I was curious to know how she keeps all of these selves around in a house that was at once, a bustling, very much alive place, and the other, a museum, an inheritance from her mother and father.
Kevin: Where do you in your house, but also in your mind, go to commune with these people and these voices, these voices that were so shaping — but you have given us a clue, which is you do it through your imagination, it sounds —
Lynn: Yeah, I do it through imagination.
Kevin: Versus a place.
Lynn: I don’t, really anymore, hear their voices in the way that one might imagine. But I do periodically visit them in photo albums. Every once in a while, I just want to see my grandmother Waple, who had this spicy, irreverent wit. And I miss that flavor in my life. I’ll just go and look at her in her bathing suit holding a cocktail. And I think, oh, there you are, I’m so happy to see you. All those memories will flood back. And it’s the same with my mother and, more recently, with my father, who I actually visit more because that wound is fresher.
Kevin: Yeah. It’s [been] only a few years.
Lynn: Because I lived with him for 23 years, the ways that most adults don’t live with their parents — and he came with us on all of our vacations, he just occupies much bigger space in my life, in my memory, than my mother who died when she was 62 and my grandmother who died 15 years ago.
Kevin: And I find as I go through life, I’m now 45 in February, and I lost my grandfather when I was 4, my grandmother, who was very close at 15, my uncle Ed, who is really the reason why I do what I do — I loved talking to him as a kid when I was in my 20s. And I find it very painful to feel my brain over time, increasingly unable to access their voices in full.
Kevin: I can get a word. But I can’t get sentences and paragraphs. It’s painful to feel your brain letting go in that way or fracturing. I find that very painful.
Lynn: It is hard. I had described earlier the resilience of my mother’s voice and I can talk about it, but I can’t really, really hear it anymore. It’s like I know what it was and I can hold on to that knowing, but I can’t hear it. And that’s hard. I can still hear my father’s voice and strangely, I can hear my grandmother’s voice just because she talked so much. It would take me years to get her out of my head.
Kevin: And spicy, too, you said.
Lynn: She’d call me every day I was in college; my grandmother would call me.
Kevin: That’s beautiful. It is something to think about too, that that playwriting itself can be this act.
Lynn: As a child, you don’t really think about yourself being part of living history, particularly as an African American, because for so long we didn’t place a lot of value on our personal archive. And so I wish that I had listened and engaged with much more intention when I was young. Certainly, if I could get into a time capsule and go back, I think that I would absorb in a very different way. There’s this really wonderful and sad story. My father grew up on the block just around the corner from Mount Morris Park, which is now Marcus Garvey Park.
Kevin: I saw that, yeah,
Lynn: And for decades, every summer, all of the old neighborhood, like all of the gang members, would gather together in Mount Morris Park in this one section. And they’d drink and listen to music and reminisce. It was always a large collection of men. And I remember one day, because my father died when he was 89, he said he took the train, the IRT up to Harlem, went to the park, and sat on the park bench where they all met. He said he sat there for two hours and he realized that he was the last man standing. And he said it just was heartbreaking and you think about the passing of moments or community. I thought with that went all of that collective knowledge and that wisdom of what Harlem was. And I wish that I had had the wherewithal to document those gatherings because there’s probably an astonishing group of men that were there and intellectual capital that was lost.
I’m hyper aware of the necessity, particularly as an African American woman, as a Black woman, of preserving the archive, because as a child, I didn’t have access to the archive in the same way, because my grandparents just shed so many of their things and didn’t really think about what the next generation wanted, or what was really necessary to preserve.
There’s a story of my grandmother, Dorothy, who lived in Harlem, who was my father’s mother. And there was a long period of time in which she worked as a domestic. She went back to school actually in her 50s in the 1960s to become a nurse at Harlem Hospital, where she worked as a domestic. She was working for an elderly white woman who was on the verge of death. And she said, “Dorothy, you know, you’ve worked very hard for me and I really want you to have something.” And this woman had all these Renoir’s and all of these beautiful things. And my grandmother said, “There’s that Renoir that I really always loved and coveted.” And she’s like, “Dorothy, it’s yours.” And there was another woman who worked who was the cook. And she said, “Oh I also like that painting.” My grandmother said “Oh, you know what? You take it.” And it just for me points out how my grandmother in all of her and her sort of homespun wisdom didn’t understand the value of certain things. And I think the way in which she treated the Renoir is the way in which she treated her life.
Kevin: When I saw her in 1940 census — I was looking for your dad, I saw there he was in Harlem and you mentioned he,
Lynn: Yeah, he lived with my grandma.
Kevin: Yeah, he was living with his mother, Dorothy, and his grandmother, Ida.
Kevin: And I realized that oh Ida was from Florida. Ida’s name is Crump.
Kevin: And the family name in Crumbs from the Table of Joy, one of your early plays is Crump. And I realized this is Lynn at work. She’s creating characters and stories around a missing archive, but she has some things. She has a name. She has places.
Lynn: She has places.
Kevin: But there you are. Your way of creating an archive is through drama and through imagination. It’s a very fascinating kind of mix of fact and imagination.
Lynn: Well, it’s also a way of keeping them alive.
Kevin: Yeah. Right.
Lynn: Both of my grandmothers who — my grandmother Dorothy died in 1997, and when she died, she had no friends left alive and so we weren’t able to really give her the funeral that she had wanted because there was no one to come but our immediate family. And so we sort of gathered to say goodbye amongst ourselves. And the same was true of my other grandmother Waple, who was such a social butterfly, but also because she died when she was so old, her community was gone. And I never gave them the funerals that I felt their lives deserved. I think in some ways as I move forward, I want to write for and about them in ways that will become those living memorials. It’s better than a headstone, [in] that they will live in three dimensions in ways in which I can conjure them and keep them alive.
[we hear music]
Kevin: The last question I want to ask you, and I ask every guest this, I end every interview the same way, I go to that great Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass and “Song of Myself” because this is a show about place, right?
Lynn: Walt Whitman lived fairly close to here.
Kevin: Thinking about communing with spirits, I want to read these passages from “Song of Myself” and then ask you a question on the back side of it. So Walt says, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles//You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/But I shall be good health to you nevertheless/And filter and fibre your blood//Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/Missing me one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
And Lynn we’ve talked about how we try to reach back to the past and hear those voices and hold onto them. But I’m thinking about someone either in your own family or maybe a student of drama 50, 100, 200 years from now, who discovers Lynn Nottage and her work and wants to commune with you and your spirit. [They] come to New York, come to Boerum Hill, come to Dean Street, and just looking around and thinking, where can I stand, where can I go, where can I be to commune with that spirit of Lynn Nottage? Where will I find her? Where would you tell someone roaming the city looking for you in your hometown? Where would you tell them to go to feel you?
Lynn: If a hundred years from now someone was looking for me and still somehow wanted to connect with a perspective that perhaps would have been mine, if they sat on the stoop and they looked at the pear tree, which I planted, which began as a sapling [and] is now still in its teenage years — and [it’s] beautiful and blossoming. But 100 years from now, I imagine that tree would still be there and they would see a little of what I had planted, a little of what I had hoped would be part of the textures of the community. And they would see something that hopefully had grown quite beautiful and majestic, and that’s rooted in a space that I helped build. There was a lot of space for it. There was a patch of dirt. And when I moved back, I thought, we’re going to have a tree. I want a tree there. And then it took a year. But finally, the Parks Department one summer afternoon drove up without saying anything, planted that tree and drove off.
Kevin: This has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for spending this time with me. I know it went long, but I just felt so, so absorbed in the conversation. So, thank you for that. I know you’re really busy. Well, it’s such a pleasure. You’re an amazing storyteller, I knew it would be a special time with you.
Lynn: Well, thank you for allowing me to travel back and revisit things that I haven’t thought about in years. It just filled me with a lot of joy.
Outro: Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): Your Hometown is a Kevin Burke Production. For more, please visit our website at yourhometown.org, where you can find our past episodes, illustrations, and maps that bring each guests’ hometown literally to life. You can also follow us on your favorite podcast app and on social media on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Also, please check out the show’s New York City series page, including information on live events and the Museum of the City of New York’s website at MCNY.org/yourhometown-podcast.
Now, I’d like to thank the wonderfully talented team that brings so much joy and passion to making Your Hometown with me, especially our executive producer, Robert Krulwich; art director, Nick Gregg; editor and sound designer, Otis Streeter; composer and performer Sterling Steffen; and our researcher Shakila Khan.
Our branding and website design is by Tama Creative, and our social media team is led by CURE and Jessica Sain-Baird.
Special thanks too, to our partners this season, the Museum of the City of New York. Now, none of this would’ve been possible without the Rockefeller Brothers Fund or our other financial supporters, and they have my deepest thanks for their commitment to the series.
Until next time. Thanks so much for taking this ride with me. And remember, everyone’s from someplace and everywhere is somewhere.
New York City
Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.