Thursday, April 30, 2009

Notes From an Uncivil War: The Dramatist on Her Purlitzer Prize-winning Play "Ruined"

Notes From an Uncivil War

The dramatist on her Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'Ruined'

Lynn Nottage was sitting on her couch watching MTV in her bathrobe this week in Brooklyn, N.Y., procrastinating instead of writing, when a reporter called and asked her how it felt to win the Pulitzer Prize. "I was like, 'Excuse me?'" says Ms. Nottage, a playwright who until the phone rang didn't realize she'd won the award for her drama, "Ruined."

Robert CaplinThe play, which explores the lives of rape victims in war-torn Congo, was inspired by interviews Ms. Nottage conducted with refugee women during trips to Africa. In 2004, Ms. Nottage, who had once worked in the press office of Amnesty International, visited the human rights group's office in Kampala, Uganda, and women who'd heard about her project came to tell her their stories. "In some cases the women had been walking since dawn," she says.

The Pulitzer for drama usually goes to plays that deal with American life, but the Pulitzer board made an exception this time, praising the drama as an unflinching portrait of wartime violence that still remains hopeful. Last week, the play extended its run to May 17 at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

The 44-year-old playwright, a graduate of Brown University and the Yale School of Drama, is at work on her next play, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," about an African-American maid in the 1930s who aspires to be an actress and will do whatever it takes to land a film role. This time, Ms. Nottage's research is easier: watching old movies.

Ms. Nottage, who received a 2007 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, is the second African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer for drama (Suzan-Lori Parks won in 2002 for "Topdog/Underdog"). "I hope it encourages younger African-American women to write in a very bold and expansive way and not to pander but to challenge," she says.

The writer, who lives with her husband and 11-year-old daughter in the Boerum Hill home where she grew up, hasn't always enjoyed career success. In the 1990s, she wrote briefly for the children's TV show "Gullah Gullah Island," but she says a producer told her that she didn't understand the character of Binyah Binyah Polliwog. "That was the very, very beginning," she says, "when I was still trying to find my voice and my confidence as a writer." -- Ellen Gamerman

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