It was just a piece of cake after the last Broadway performance of her play ‘Clyde’s’ on Sunday, but Lynn Nottage was genuinely happy to have it – not just to toast the end of the limited run with the rest of the troupe, upstairs in the Hayes Theater, as well as sneaking a brief, rare moment of indulgence into a schedule that’s been too full for a glass of wine lately.
Starring Uzo Aduba as the owner of a sandwich shop with people who have served time, and Ron Cephas Jones as a culinary artist who leads the workers in a quest for the perfect sandwich, “Clyde’s” kicked off a remarkable season for Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. This month, until the closing of “Clyde’s” for four days, she had three new shows on stage in New York; the others, still in previews, are the Broadway musical “MJ,” about Michael Jackson, and the opera “Intimate Apparel,” an adaptation of her play of the same name at the Lincoln Center Theater.
For months she shuttled between them, rushing back to “Clyde’s” for talkbacks and attending gigs when students were around. All while teaching full-time at Columbia University and releasing the short film “Takeover” in October, produced by her company Market Road Films, for DailyExpertNews’ Op-Docs series.
After Sunday night’s champagne toast, Nottage came down for an interview in a theater lounge to talk about her season and “Clyde’s,” which she called “Floyd’s” when it premiered in Minneapolis in 2019, and renamed it next. the murder of George Floyd in 2020. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
So, how are you?
I am very overworked. [laughs] I described this particular moment just like making art in the eye of a hurricane.
You have decided to make a lot of art in the eye of a hurricane.
It’s a lot of art, yes. It’s the moment when I was invited to make art, but it’s also the hardest, most charged, complicated moment in theater history. It would be stressful, you know, doing three shows without the added element of Covid. But add that kind of special ingredient, and it’s very complicated.
Do you have the time to enjoy this?
I started rehearsals for both shows in October, “MJ” and “Clyde’s.” From October to December I was rehearsing and teaching and watching the shows in the evenings, teaching full time in Columbia. I didn’t have a single day off. And in mid-December we started rehearsals for ‘Intimate Apparel’. But oddly enough, during the Covid shutdown, when we didn’t have an “MJ” for 10 days, I suddenly had a little break. I could breathe.
Is there joy in it?
This is the dream. I am extremely proud of all three works of art that I have created. They are so different and they represent different aspects of who I am as an artist in different parts of my brain. Part of the fun of doing all three of these artworks at once is that I can leave one space and enter another completely different space and then, you know, leave that space and enter another. And so I’m never bored.
“Clyde’s” is a comedy.
It’s a comedy. It’s also a feel-good game. And especially at this point, I think the audience needs something that is healing and soothing, and that allows them to open their hearts and laugh. And that’s what I hoped to do.
It was a long journey with this piece, yes?
Doesn’t seem like a super long trip to me. This trip was just interrupted due to world conditions. We have been through a lot. The world changed in ways that now seem incomprehensible to me. I mean, I actually can’t believe we went through it. I’ll be an old lady with my grandkids like, “Yeah, let me tell you about Covid and Donald Trump.” [laughs] You know, it’s kind of like when I think of my grandmother talking about the depression and the war, and it just seemed like, “How did you survive?” Now I know.
Did you think if you finally did “Clyde’s” we’d be out of the pandemic?
I think we all thought that. There was a moment of incredible optimism. And yet, when we started “Clyde’s”, we had all the Covid protocols and the Covid officer, and we wore masks in rehearsals and the actors got to take the masks off on stage. And that felt like a win, like, okay, we’re going through this difficult moment. And the audience came back and you would walk through this theater district and it felt alive and alive. And you know, there were a lot of tourists, and restaurants were packed. You couldn’t get reservations.
I think something like “Clyde’s” would have been a hit in any other climate, and it would have continued to run. We always had a limited run, and we ran through that period. But I think we could have continued at a different time. It just breaks my heart to make something that I feel connects with the audience at a time when the audience is reluctant to come to the theater. But for us, I think one of the real positives is that we were able to simulcast.
Tell me about that.
We became a kind of beta test for Broadway. Like, can this concept work? Can you create live theater that is projected into people’s living rooms and people actually tune in and have an experience? And what we found is, yes. So many people who were either afraid to come to the theater, or had Covid and couldn’t get to the theater bought tickets and had an experience that wasn’t live in the fact that their bodies were in the theater and they were exchanging energy with the actors, but it still had this kind of spontaneity, because they didn’t know what was going to happen. I think it’s going to be an interesting bonanza for theater.
How different is your experience of this season from a normal season?
Under normal circumstances you go out with people after shows. There is a real sense of community. You see people from other shows. You really feel very much part of a season. But here every show is an island because of Covid. People do the show and they go home.
Where did you get your work ethic?
It’s fear. It’s the fear that it will all go away. There was a time in my life when my father had an accident that left him unable to work, and my mother, who was a teacher, suddenly had to support the whole family. And I saw how hard she was working and I thought, oh my god, that could happen to me. You know that your circumstances can change at any moment. And you are in a difficult situation. And I thought, okay, I’m just not going to let that happen.
How old were you then?
I was maybe 11 or 12.
By now, the fear cannot be about being in great trouble. Is it really possible?
Yeah, I mean, it’s not rational. [laughs] It’s just a fact.
But I’ve always worked. That’s why I think I write about working people – that’s what I do.
So now you’ll be slacking off with just two shows in previews –
With only two shows, it’s like, phew! But next week education will start again. And they want us to teach remotely, and I have a class that isn’t a remote class. It’s really about being immersed in experiences. I’m like, what am I going to do?
I need to figure it out, but I don’t have time to figure it out. I’m like, okay, tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and from 7 to 8:30, I’ll figure it out.