It was just a flute of champagne after Sunday’s final Broadway performance of her play “Clyde’s,” but Lynn Nottage was genuinely happy to have it — not only to toast the end of the limited run with the rest of the company, upstairs at the Hayes Theater, but also to sneak a brief, rare moment of indulgence in a schedule that’s lately been too crammed for a glass of wine.
Starring Uzo Aduba as the owner of a sandwich shop staffed 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” started a remarkable season for Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. For four days this month, until “Clyde’s” closed, she had three new shows onstage in New York; the others, still in previews, are the Broadway musical “MJ,” about Michael Jackson, and the opera “Intimate Apparel,” adapted from her play of the same name, at Lincoln Center Theater.
For months she shuttled among them, dashing back to “Clyde’s” for talkbacks and to catch performances when understudies went on. All while teaching full time at Columbia University and, in October, releasing the short film “Takeover,” produced by her company Market Road Films, for the Op-Docs series of The New York Times.
After the champagne toast on Sunday evening, Nottage came downstairs for an interview in a lounge at the theater to talk about her season and about “Clyde’s,” which she called “Floyd’s” when it had its premiere in Minneapolis in 2019, and renamed following the killing of George Floyd in 2020. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
So how are you?
I’m very overworked. [laughs] I was just describing this particular moment as like making art in the eye of a hurricane.
You’ve decided to make a lot of art in the eye of a hurricane.
It’s a lot of art, yeah. It’s the moment in which I was invited to make art, but it’s also the most difficult, fraught, complicated moment in theater history. It would be stressful, you know, making three shows without the added element of Covid. But add that sort of special ingredient, and it’s very complicated.
Are you getting the time to savor this?
I started rehearsal in October for both shows, “MJ” and “Clyde’s.” From October to December, I was rehearsing and teching and seeing the shows at night, and teaching full time at Columbia. I did not have a single day off. And then in mid-December, we began rehearsals for “Intimate Apparel.” But strangely, in the Covid shutdown, when for 10 days we didn’t have “MJ” going, I suddenly had just a little bit of a pause. I could breathe.
Is there joy in it?
This is the dream. I feel immensely proud of all three of the works of art that I have created. They’re so different and they represent different aspects of who I am as an artist in different parts of my brain. Part of the joy of making all three of these pieces of art at the same time is that it allows me to leave one space and enter another completely different space and then, you know, leave that space and enter another one. And so I never get bored.
“Clyde’s” is a comedy.
It is a comedy. It’s also a feel-good play. And particularly at this moment I think that audiences need something that is healing and soothing, and that allows them to open up their hearts and allow laughter in. And that’s what I was hoping to do.
It was a long journey with this play, yes?
It doesn’t seem like a super long journey to me. This journey was just interrupted because of world circumstances. We’ve been through a lot. The world changed in ways that now seem incomprehensible to me. I mean, I kind of can’t believe that we lived through it. I’ll be an old lady with my grandchildren, like: “Yes, let me tell you about Covid and Donald Trump.” [laughs] You know, it’s sort of similar when I think about my grandmother talking about the Depression and the war, and it just seemed like, “How did you survive?” Now I know.
Did you think that when you finally got to do “Clyde’s,” we would be out of the pandemic?
I think all of us thought that. There was a moment of incredible optimism. And still, when we began “Clyde’s,” we had all of the Covid protocols in place and the Covid officer, and we wore masks throughout rehearsals and the actors were permitted to take off the masks on the stage. And that felt like a victory, like, OK, we’re moving through this difficult moment. And audiences were coming back and you’d walk through this theater district and it felt vibrant and alive. And you know, there were sprinklings of tourists, and restaurants were packed. You couldn’t get reservations.
I think that something like “Clyde’s” in any other climate would have been a hit, and it would have continued to run. We always had a limited run, and we ran through that period of time. But I think that any other time, we could have kept going. It just kind of breaks my heart to make something that I feel is connecting with audiences in a moment in which audiences feel reluctant to come to theater. But for us, I think one of the real positive notes is that we were able to simulcast.
Tell me about that.
We became sort of the beta test for Broadway. Like, can this concept work? Can you do live theater that’s projected into people’s living rooms and people actually tune in and have an experience? And what we discovered is, yes. So many people who were either fearful to come to the theater, or had Covid and couldn’t come 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 the 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, after shows you go out for drinks with people. There’s a real sense of community. You see people from other shows. You feel really 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 fear that it may all go away. There was a moment in my life in which my father had an accident which didn’t permit him to work, and my mother, who was a schoolteacher, suddenly had to support the entire family. And I saw how hard she worked and I thought, Oh my God, that could happen to me. You know, that any moment your circumstances can change. And you find yourself in dire straits. And I thought, OK, I’m just not going to let that happen.
How old were you then?
I was maybe 11 or 12.
By now, the fear can’t be about being in dire straits. Can it really?
Yeah, I mean, it’s not rational. [laughs] It just is a fact.
But I’ve always worked. This is why I think I write about working people — that’s what I do.
So now that you’ll be slacking with just two shows in previews —
With just two shows, it’s like, whew! But teaching begins again next week. And they want us to teach remotely, and I have a class that’s not a remote class. It really is about being immersed in experiences. I’m like, what am I going to do?
I have to figure it out, but I don’t have time to figure it out. I’m like, OK, tomorrow morning I will wake up and from 7 to 8:30, I’ll figure it out.