Baltimore residents can kinda, sorta claim that we helped jump-start the career of Lynn Nottage, who picked up the 2009 Pulitzer Prize this afternoon for her newest play, Ruined.
When the awards list of winners and finalists was released at 3 p.m., Nottage had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, besting such competitors as Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose In the Heights won the 2008 Tony Award for best musical.
The judges cited Nottage's "searing" drama set in the Belgian Congo "that compels audiences to face the horror of wartime rape and brutality while still finding affirmation of life and hope amid hopelessness."
The other winners of the literary awards were:
* Fiction: Elizabeth Strout for her novel, Olive Kitteridge,
* History: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed,
* Biography: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham,
* Poetry: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin, and
* General Non-Fiction: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.
Keep reading this post to find out what Nottage had to say about Ruined before the play opened on Broadway, and why Baltimore can claim some bragging rights in connection with the MacArthur Award-winning playwright.
And you can find out more about other winners of the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes here
Center Stage co-commissioned and mounted Nottage's most famous (until now) play in 2003, Intimate Apparel, and it went on to a long and acclaimed run first on Broadway, and then at regional theaters around the U.S. Center Stage also has performed two other of Nottage's plays: Crumbs from the Table of Joy in 2006, and Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine this past winter.
I interviewed Nottage over the telephone on Feb. 2, eight days before Ruined opened in Broadway. Even at that early date, the work was generating Pulitzer buzz, in part because of the rapturous reviews garnered by the production during its out-of-town tryout in Chicago.
"I've been there and done that," Nottage said of the rumors that Ruined was already short-listed for the Pulitzer in drama.
"That's what people said would happen with Intimate Apparel, and it wasn't even a finalist. I feel that my reward for this work is in the response it's getting. People see this play, and they want to take political action. They come up to me afterward and say, 'What can I do to help? Where do I donate?' That's why I wrote it. It's a 'political' piece of theater that's not being treated as such."
Nottage said that Ruined was loosely inspired by Bertold Brecht's great anti-war play, Mother Courage and Her Children. Both Brecht's canteen woman, Mother Courage, and the brothel owner, Mama Nadi, who is central to Nottage's play, are opportunists who profit from the war.
"They are morally complicated and ambiguous characters, strong women who will do anything to survive," Nottage said.
Everyone who has seen the play has commented that Nottage has taken subject matter that can be unrelentingly grim -- rape, and other war atrocities -- and given it a tone that is buoyant and frequently funny.
"The interesting thing about modern warfare is that the assumption is that the battle is going on constantly," Nottage says.
"But it ebbs and flows. In between the big battles, people try to resurrect their lives. The devastation isn't the sum total of what life is like during wartime, though that's what one would assume from reading the headlines."
During the interview, Nottage mentioned that Center Stage commissioned her to write another play, which received a staged reading in 2008. The play, tentatively titled By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, is set in the 1930s, and is about a white actress and a black starlet who are vying to be cast in a slave epic on the big screen.
"I had a terrific reading of the play at Center Stage, and I was really encouraged," Nottage said. "But I have no commitment from them yet."
Who wants to bet that that situation is about to change?