This is a continuation of the conversation that took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center as presented in collaboration by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women. The event was produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser and Sophia Romma. For Part I Click this LINK.
Elisabeth Vincentelli: Could you talk about Mlima’s Tale. It was another different approach you took.
Lynn Nottage: It was commissioned by film director Katherine Bigelow (award winning director of Hurt Locker). And we were developing it together. She has incredible passion about elephants. Mlima’s Tale is told from the point of view of an elephant that’s been poached. And the play tracks the elephant’s tusks from the hands of the people who poach him to the hands of the people in China who buy his tusks. It’s a very stylized piece. Jo Bonny came in. And we decided that we wanted to make the piece very differently. It was based on my working with designers that was very collaborative. We decided that we wanted to work with designers from beginning to end which almost never happens. Usually what happens is that designers speak to the director during the first draft of the script and then they come back into the process during tech week. We thought we don’t want to make it that way. We want designers to be there very single day which is why I think the piece is more holistic and integrated on all levels. We were talking to each other and making creative decisions in the moment which was very exciting.
It was very imaginative with the lighting, music and movement.
We worked with a composer who had never done theater before. The equipment was all set up. During the first preview, a musician felt very deeply and he didn’t know he couldn’t just spontaneously sing. We had to say “Wait, you can’t do that.” (laughter)
What are the new musicals you are working on?
The first one is The Secret Life of Bees which is an adaptation of the book by Sue Monk with composer Duncan Sheik who did the music for Spring Awakening and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead who did Jelly’s Last Jam. Sam Gold is directing it and it will be at the Atlantic Theater Company in the Spring. And we’ve been working on it for a couple of years and it’s very beautiful.
Then you’re working on another musical of Intimate Apparel.
Well, it’s not exactly a musical. It’s an opera which is a co-commission between the Met Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre. It’s been interesting developing something which is kind of a hybrid and having Peter Gelb from the Met giving notes and Andre Bishop from the theater. Both of them have very different needs. (laughter) And Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer, is doing a brilliant job.
The third one which has been announced is?
The Michael Jackson musical. I’m writing the book on the Michael Jackson Musical. Michael Jackson’s written the music. (laughter)
What are the challenges for working on the book of a musical or opera,
The opera which is an adaptation of working on my own play Intimate Apparel? The challenge was in figuring out how to write a libretto from material I was so attached to. I didn’t want to let go of anything. And working with Ricky, the first time I handed him my libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play.’ The second time I handed him the libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play, again.’ And I asked, ‘How do I do this?’ He said, ‘You’re not trusting your collaborator. You have to understand in musical theater and opera, the music does 50% of the work. It is what makes it expansive. Trust that I’m going to allow people to feel and teach people to feel through my music.’ And once I trusted him, I was able to make some of those cuts and get rid of the exposition. I had to let him be the collaborator that he is, and allow him to do some of the heavy lifting. I had to let him do the story telling. He does beautiful story telling which allowed me to step away.
What about with Sue Monk’s Secret Life of Bees? How was it writing book for a work that was not yours?
Well Sue Monk gave us the license to do whatever we wanted. She was like ‘I’ve written the book.’ We made it clear that we made some massive changes and that we were not doing a strict adaptation of the book. We told her that we’re creating a piece that is inspired by the book that honors all her characters without making replicas of those characters.
How do you approach the writing of the book?
From my position of writing the book? I’m the architect of the narrative. It is my job to make sure that all the pieces come together. So I’m kind of like the contractor. I am there to make sure that everything is exactly as we want it.
How did you feel writing book for that musical?
It’s incredible and liberating as a book writer. So if get to a difficult point, I can turn to Susan (lyricist) and say, “You got this right?” (laughter) It’s the lyricist that’s doing a lot of the important story telling. I throw her the ball and she does the “slam dunk.”
You said you learned at Yale what “to do as a playwright and what not to do.” Could you elaborate on that?
Sure. When I arrived at Yale I had just gone from college to graduate school. So my assumptions when I was there was that they had a blueprint about how to be a good playwright. I learned a lot about structure, but I also think I also became imprisoned by a lot of what I learned because I didn’t realize I had the freedom to make my own decisions. I think that is what I meant.
Writing the play into a libretto are you turning it into prose or are you turning it into poetry?
I think it’s both. Some of it is definitely prose and some of it is definitely poetry. It’s a combination.
From the perspective of film how does that approach differ? What is the difference between a word and an image and what is special about each one?
The way in which film and theater function differently is clear. In theater we do a lot of problem solving through language. In film a lot of the problem solving is done through images. I think particularly in film there is the short cut you can take that you don’t have the luxury of doing onstage in the theater. You can quickly convey something by taking a character somewhere else in film, but because of the limitations of the stage, we have to use language sometimes to describe the visuals.
You were raised to appreciate the arts. What are you doing to advocate for young people in the arts?
I’ve been a professor for 17 years. I’m a teacher. And I think that’s the primary way to nurture young artists, because when I was young artist I didn’t feel that there were a lot of people to nurture young African American artists. I feel it’s essential to nurture the next generation and I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into helping directors and playwrights who are up and coming and emerging.
Which characters do you use to get their stories told?
I use the characters that assert themselves. The characters that come back and demand to be represented on the stage are ultimately the ones who win out.
Do you have a specific audience in mind that you are writing for?
I like to think that I’m writing for an audience who are friends. My friends are a very diverse group of people. So those are the friends I write for. But Intimate Apparel was very specific. It was for my mother. I don’t think I’ve written anything else with that kind of intention. I did this adaptation for this film director Lars Von Trier. (laughter) He would talk to me on the phone, but he would never direct any comments or questions to me. He wanted to speak to me through his producer. And this was on the telephone. The three of us would be on the phone and he would say, “Tell Lynn. . .” And I would respond, “I can hear you.” (laughter) The film was Manderlay.
Did you have any influencers?
I did have influencers. I had my parents who took me to theater. As a professional playwright, I didn’t have mentors who helped me nurture this career.
Now you’ve reached a certain point in your career, is there another medium you would like to work in?
Because of the past year or two that I’ve become so overwhelmed and busy, I don’t feel that I have the time to nurture my self. I haven’t had the time to read books and to ruminate. I have to endeavor, in the next couple of years, just to make time to think and think about what it is I want to do.
Did you have a sense that those two pieces that won your Pulitzers would stand out in some way.
The Pultizer came as a complete and total surprise. Technically, the Pulitzer is supposed to be a play that deals with American culture. And Ruined is set in the Congo. So when I got that phone call it was an absolute surprise. For Sweat I never thought that lightening was going to strike twice. So that was a total surprise as well.
Could you still comment on the lack of production opportunities for women in theater. We’re still below 20% and women of color are really at the bottom.
I think you put it very well. (laughter) It is a fact there is work to be done. And very recently there was another survey about theater and women. I can’t speak to the specifics of this in all the other areas, but for women playwrights they found that for white women throughout the country, there’s been an increase to almost parity. But for women of color and men of color, the numbers are still staggeringly low.
How can we change the dynamics of theater pricing?
I think there is a way to make theater more affordable and more accessible, as we did in Sweat. I teach a course called American Spectacle about how to evolve beyond the proscenium. And I teach it because of my incredible frustration with we as playwrights and directors and artists. We craft our productions very specifically for the stage and proscenium of Off Broadway Theaters that are limited in space and also limited in the audience that they reach. The audience that I want to reach doesn’t necessarily relate to the audience that I look and see is watching my play.
One of the things I realized is that I don’t have to be locked into that problem. We can be incredibly flexible. We can take theater to the people. And that’s what we discovered with the mobile unit. We can break out of the proscenium and bring theater into a gym and if there’s an audience for it, we’ve broken away from that limitation. The very first production that we did in Pennsylvania, people showed up with their kids. They had not been to theater. They didn’t know they were going to sit for two and 1/2 hours and so Stephanie Ybarra, the Artistic Director of the mobile unit, and I ended up holding people’s babies while people watched theater (laughter).
And I thought, ‘This is great. Why can’t we do this in Off Broadway theaters.’ The other establishing fact was we realized that most of those folks had never been to theater before. Not a single cell phone rang. People sat rapt. And I thought ‘…there’s something about that audience that’s different from New York audiences because they want to be there and not because they bought a subscription and have to meet the quota of plays’ (laughter). They are there because they want this entire experience. I think that in some way we have to re-educate the audiences that see theater in New York. I think that there are really bad habits that are being nurtured and we have to change that. (applause)
I’m here from a class at NYU and I want to know if you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist. My mother was a feminist. And she was very outspoken on women’s rights and so I’ve been a feminist since the time I can remember.
Are you inspired by to write about what is going on in current politics and what is going on at the border and the lies that we’re hearing.
Yes. I’d like to write about it. At the very end of the mobile unit tour, we ended at a Native American reservation and one of the elders stood up and said something incredibly moving. He said, “I don’t understand what this border wall is. There are no borders in America. These fences that they’ve erected where they arrest people if they cross over mean nothing.” He and others understand that these obstructions shouldn’t mean anything because this is land that has no boundaries. That’s how I feel. And there’s part of me that wants to do a Walkabout and walk the length of the border and talk to people and collect their stories but it would probably take a very long time. (applause and cheering)
You can see Lynn Nottage’s play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Irene Diamond Stage. For a schedule of where Lynn’s plays are being produced and to learn more about Lynn, go to her website: CLICK HERE.
For more about The League of Professional Theatre Women or to become a member CLICK HERE.
Monday evening at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, the New York Library for the Performing Arts and The League of Professional Theatre Women presented another Oral History event celebrating renowned women in theater. Produced by Ludovia Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma, those in attendance enjoyed Elisabeth Vincentelli’s interview of award-winning, globally renowned playwright and screenwriter Lynn Nottage. Elisabeth Vincentelli writes about the arts and theater for various publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal to name a few of her many writing accomplishments. She also co-hosts the “Three on the Aisle” podcast with Peter Marks (Washington Post) and Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal) The following interview has been lightly edited. Look for Part II next week.
Elisabeth: You are the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize twice (applause) You have such a rich career. I wanted to anchor it by having you talk about where you grew up. It was right here in New York.
Lynn: I was very fortunate to grow up in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It was a community defined by people moving through it to get to other communities. It was a very marginal neighborhood at the time. My block was dominated by boarding houses. It was very multicultural. It was a neighborhood where people who were pushed out of other neighborhoods found refuge. And as an aspiring writer, I feel like it was the best place to grow up because it was so diverse and accepting and nurturing. It was a true community. Next door to me, for example, in one of the boarding houses, there was a woman who by day wore a full Burqa, a Hijab. She was completely covered up. Her husband was a taxi driver. At night when he would leave, she would actually take it off and put on a Kaftan. That was the type of community it was.
So I think it was inevitable that I would end up as a writer having lived there. As a matter of fact on the same block, if anyone knows the novelist Jonathan Lethem, he memorialized the block in the Fortress of Solitude. And the yard in back where everyone played was the yard where I grew up. Our house was the nexus point for the block. I started my first stories when I was five-years-old. I wanted to capture things that I heard. And the aspect of the place was very rich in texture. I knew there was something very special about that moment in time and about the people who congregated in that neighborhood.
Where did you go to college?
Before college, I went to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. I was an aspiring musician. And when I got there, I discovered that I was not as good as the other aspiring musicians. (laughter) I decided to do something else. I went to Brown University as a Pre-med student with the assumption that I was going to be a doctor, not that I ever wanted to be a doctor. However, because I was very good in math and science, they decided to give me a scholarship and I got into Brown.
Even before I went to Brown I was writing plays and when I went to Brown I continued to write these little dramas that I managed to produce myself. When I was there I met two professors who were quite influential. One of them was Paula Vogel the first female playwright I had ever met. Up to then, there were only two other female playwrights that I had read. One of them was Lorraine Hansberry, the other was Ntozake Shange. At the time Lorraine Hanesberry had passed away and Ntozake Shange was not very prolific. I was under the assumption that playwriting was really a hobby for women and that it was something that I was never going to be able to make a living doing. Then I met Paula Vogel. She was the first woman who said, “You know, you can do this. And there’s strength in numbers.” There was another professor whose name was George Bass who was the executor of the Langston Hughes estate. He really taught me about the joys and the ritual of creating theater. Theater was not just about putting people on stage. But it was a place where healing could occur and where one could deal with community.
So at that point you’re still grappling with what you wanted to do.
I thought I was going to be a journalist. That summer I was working for a newspaper called The Villager. There were only four of us and we wrote the entire newspaper. For a very brief period of time I was the Arts Editor. And the only reason why I did it was because I could go to the Openings and drink wine. The Villager was located on East Fourth Street.
Did it compete with The Village Voice?
At some point it did. When I was there it did not. (audience laughter)
When did you decide to focus on writing?
I think my decision to focus on writing came when I was deciding what to do after college. I applied to Columbia Journalism School to be a journalist. And on a whim I applied to Yale School of Drama assuming I would never get in. I did. And I spent four very difficult, fraught years in Yale School of Drama where I learned how to be a playwright and then how not to be a playwright at the same time.
Did you go to the theater?
Not so much, then. I went to the theater a lot when I was young. I was fortunate to grow up in New York City. At the time there were a lot of rising African American Theater Companies. There was the New Federal Theater. There was The Negro Ensemble. There was the Billie Holiday Theatre. My parents, who were great lovers of art, made sure that not every weekend, but certainly a few times a year we saw plays. So I encountered the work of Charles Fuller. I remember when I was in High School going to see Giancarlo Esposito. I was with my girlfriends and we were so excited. The performance was electric. At that time theater was affordable. We could go as teenagers.
What about the Billie Holiday Theatre?
They did a renovation and it is thriving. There are wonderful artists that are working there and they are doing representative work emphasizing being inclusive.
You mentioned that you dropped out of playwriting?
The time I was in graduate school coincided with the time that was a crucial moment in American Social History. It was the AIDS Crisis and the Crack Epidemic. So in school we were losing students, we were losing professors. It was really hard to make art in that environment. It felt like there were many more urgent things that needed to be attended to. After I graduated from Yale School of Drama, I felt that I wanted to do something with impact. I sold my computer, if you could call it that. It was sort of like a word processor, and I went to work for Amnesty International, which at the time was the largest human rights organization in the world. I was a press officer and I spent four, intense really concentrated years doing human rights work. In many ways the time I spent with Amnesty International became my second graduate school. It really shaped me not only as an artist but as a person. By the time I left, I knew exactly what I wanted to do as an artist which I didn’t know prior to that time.
Did you feel that playwriting could convey what you wanted to say?
I did. I will tell you a story. It was the moment that I decided to go back to playwriting. A woman named Donna Ferrato, who is a quite famous photographer came to our office. She’d taken these beautiful and disturbing photographs of women arriving at a battered women’s shelter. I saw these images of women who were in a moment of absolute crisis, but there was a look of relief on their faces as well. I was incredibly moved by the photographs.
During that time at Amnesty International, we were struggling with the notion that women’s rights should be separated out from human rights. The organization wasn’t doing enough to address specific human rights abuses. I saw these photographs and I knew that there was nothing that we as an organization could do. But as a human being I felt that I needed to respond to those images. So I closed my office door and I wrote a play. It was the first time I had done that in four years. The play was Poof. Poof is a short play about a woman who’s abused. She tells her husband to go to hell. He spontaneously combusts and turns into a pile of ash. (laughter) She calls her best friend on the phone and she comes down and they have a discussion about what to do with this pile of ash. Finally, they decide to sweep it under the rug. (laughter)
I had returned to playwriting and it felt really good. I arrived at a total synthesis of the “human rights” brain and the “writing” brain. I thought, I can do both things. I don’t know why I have to compartmentalize. For me that was incredibly liberating.
Was Poof your first professional production?
Yes. It was my first professional production. I submitted it to it the Humana Festival. It won the Heideman Award. And Seret Scott who was a fantastic director became my first professional director and my first professional mentor who guided me through the process.
You had three plays in quick succession in the 1990s being produced around the country: Crumbs From the Table of Joy; Mud, River, Stone; and Por’Knockers. Could you speak about each?
Crumbs from the Table of Joy was my very first professional commission. It was commissioned by Second Stage which was still uptown in a 97-seat theater. The play was specifically commissioned for young audiences. I wrote this play assuming it would never get produced. They decided to do it.
It’s really interesting because it was directed by Joe Morton. People know him as “Papa Pope.” At the time he had a very robust acting career and in the middle of directing it he got a job and he was drawn away. So the previews went on for a really long time. As a result the play began to build an audience. By the time he came back, it actually was a success even before it opened. Word of mouth sold it. It starred Ella Joyce and she had just come off of a very popular series. And she used to go to the Beacon Theater which, at the time, was a venue for The Chitlin Circuit. And she would hand out flyers. She would say, “You think this is good, just walk down a few blocks.” People recognized her because she was on the series (Roc) and they followed her advice. She was really responsible for this robust audience that we had.
Mud, River, Stone was commissioned by The Acting Company. We actually developed it on the road before we brought it into New York. When it came to New York, we did a short performance at Playwrights Horizons and then were invited back to do a larger production. I never felt that I finished that play. Before we went into rehearsal at Playwrights Horizons, I had my first child. I was nursing and at rehearsal. Every time she cried, I’d sneak out. The day of the first preview, my mother died. So I had all of these major life events occur during that play. As a result, I felt that I never really had the opportunity to properly tend to that play. That was my great frustration with it.
My other play which was Por’Knockers began at New York Theater Workshop. It came out of this multicultural group that I was in. We presented a short evening of plays. The Vineyard Theater came to see the play which is about a group of terrorists who blow up an FBI building and inadvertently kill some children. They have to decide over the course of the evening whether to take responsibility for their actions or not. They each get their turn to go to the phone to inform others about the explosion. Each one has to figure out what is the price they are willing to pay for their beliefs. At the end, none of them are able to make the phone call. The play was enormously successful at NY Theater Workshop. Then we did it at the Vineyard Theater. But the world had changed. Six months before we did it at the Vineyard, Oklahoma City Bombing happened. The FBI building was blown up. And the day we opened at the Vineyard Theater was the Million Man March. So the play that was a social satire suddenly became very different and much more intense. As a result people just didn’t respond to it.
Now, we’ll move on to Las Meninas which is an outlier, but every one of your plays is an outlier. That’s beautiful. I love that. Could you speak about Las Meninas
Sure. Las Meninas was actually a play that I wrote in graduate school. The play is based on a tiny slip of history that I read about. It was the relationship between Queen Maria Theresa of Spain, the wife of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and her African servant, Nabo who was a dwarf. When I read about this, I thought this is fascinating. Why don’t we know more? I ended up doing years and years of research. True story. I found a book in the New York Public Library, the main branch. I think I was the first person to ever read this book. It was written in 1710 and it was a translation of one of the memoirs written by a mistress. In this memoir the mistress detailed this relationship. I wrote a little bit about this and became an almost expert. I was getting calls from historians asking “How did you find this?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m a playwright.” Because the play is so whimsical and is a costume drama, it doesn’t get done that often. But it is one of my favorite plays because it is so delightful and it’s a true story told from the point of view of their daughter.
Now we move on to a key play in your career, Intimate Apparel directed by Kate Whoriskey. Was that your first collaboration?
Yes. I describe our meeting as a theater blind date. Someone said ‘Oh you and Kate should meet.’ I remember that we met at New Dramatist, in their library which was very cold. We both talked to each other shivering. We decided to work together. I was excited to work with her. Intimate Apparel was a commission by Center Stage. And it was the first play that I had written after my mother died. My mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and I spent a lot of time caring for her. During that period, I didn’t have time to write. Also, I had a child. I was having to figure out, how do I make all of these pieces work. When my mother died, suddenly I became the main caregiver of my grandmother. My mother was just an only child. It was just my mother and my grandmother. My grandfather was there, but that’s a different story.
I was going through my grandmother’s things and literally, she would put photographs in the middle of magazines for some unknown reason. I found a photograph and it was the first time I had seen a photo of my great grandmother, my grandmother and her sister. And I was struck by the fact that my grandmother who had dementia, couldn’t answer questions about this woman in the photograph. I couldn’t ask my mother who was dead. And it really broke my heart. So I wanted to reconstruct her life. I went to the New York Public Library. I wanted to figure out who was this African American woman who came to New York at the turn of the century, by herself. Who was this seamstress? How did she survive? How did she make a living that enabled her to build a family and that led to me being on this stage today? So Intimate Apparel became an examination into my own ancestry.
You wrote this at the same time…you say that you work on a number of plays at the same time. While you were working on Intimate Apparel, you were working on Fabulation?
Yes, Fabulation is a social satire. I was imagining Esther who is the central character in Intimate Apparel. Esther is an African American seamstress who falls in love with a Romanian Jewish man and she’s corresponding with a Caribbean man. It’s this little love triangle. I was imagining who might Esther be one hundred years later, if she had gone through the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement and felt fully empowered. So Undine of Fabulation is Esther 100-years later. Also, I wanted an outlet. Intimate Apparel was a play I wrote for my mother. I imagined what play might my mother want to see? Fabulation became my escape…the place that I went, when I didn’t want to cry.
You were working on poems at the same time, also. But how do you handle the juggling act of writing two plays at the same time?
I have two screens. (laughter) Literally, when I would get stuck on one play, rather than step away from my computer and do something else, I can literally switch the screen and write something else. The plays are so different and use completely different muscles, I can enter in both worlds without feeling burdened by the other.
You have discussed that your plays are thoroughly researched. Then you transmogrify the information into drama.
I found in my writing process, that procrastination is a form of creative exploration. (laughter) When I’m not writing and beating up on myself, I just continue to investigate. When I was working on Sweat, for instance, I spent two-and-one-half years exploring. But I felt that I needed that time to explore. I needed that time to know my characters. Rather than to rush into writing, I felt I needed that time to know a completely different world and immerse myself. I did the same thing for Ruined. I spent three years of immersion with Ruined, going to and from East Africa trying to find a story that I wanted to tell. And I thought it was a very productive way to spend my time.
Ruined was a run-away success. It was extended numerous times. I remember one time I was seeing it with a school group in the audience, and I thought, “Oh, my God.” But they completely adored the story.
When you wrote Sweat, it was a fascinating project that you spent time researching, but you had a companion project with it.
It was a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that specifically invited playwrights to write plays about an “American Revolution.” The revolution that I wanted to write about was the Industrial Revolution in America. By the time I finished, I thought it would be history and it would be living history.
I went to Reading, PA, and spent a lot of time. I began forging these very deep, complicated relationships with people in the community. But I didn’t want to be a carpetbagger. I didn’t want to write this play that goes to Oregon, and travels to various theaters then comes to New York. I didn’t want to forget the play’s origins. I wanted to create something, a play that was still very connected to the people who were in Reading, PA and make use of these hundreds of hours of interviews that I didn’t use and didn’t filter into the play.
So after I did Sweat, the following year, I decided to build this massive performance installation that would be set in Reading, PA. We decided we wanted to re-animate the Reading Railroad that everyone knows from Monopoly. It had been abandoned since 1981. When it was closed down, it effectively shut Reading off from the rest of the country. Suddenly, people who used to get to Philadelphia in 55 minutes could no longer get there easily. They had to take a bus to Allentown and then go to Reading.
When I got to Reading, PA it was the poorest city of that size in America. When you walked around, you felt the sadness and the frustration and you felt all the things you experienced in a place that once had been an industrial powerhouse. It was literally withering on the vine. We thought, how do we revitalize this downtown area? The railroad station became symbolic. It was one of the few places that everyone had a connection to. At some point in time, everyone had passed through it.
We thought it was going to be difficult to get keys to the station. But the guy who had the keys said, ‘Yeah.” He tossed us the keys, and said “Here, just leave it in the same condition you found it.’ And we then went about building this installation that charted Reading from the moment the station closed down to the present. We wanted to create a space, like we said in our mission statement: “To create a space where a homeless person and the mayor could sit down together and recognize that they shared the same narrative,” and that they could sit side by side together. It’s not hyperbole to say that we achieved that. We didn’t get the present Mayor of Reading, PA. For various complicated reasons he was our antagonist. However, we did get two former Mayors who came and sat there and wept along with a lot of homeless folks. So it was successful and really gratifying to know that you could make theater outside of the proscenium that had resonance.
In 2017 Sweat was on Broadway. Then there was another stage in the Sweat saga with the Public Theater. (See This is Reading on Lynn Nottage’s website)
When we first produced Sweat at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we raised a grand to bring Sweat back to Reading, PA with the same cast. So the day we closed Sweat at the Public Theater, the next day we got up at 7:30 am and drove down to Reading and performed Sweat for 250 people in the Reading community. When we drove down there we were terrified about how the community would react to the production. However, we were overwhelmed by the response. We had a Q and A and people testified and told their stories and didn’t want to leave. We recognized that there was a real necessity for people who were going through the same predicaments as the characters in the play…for them to have an outlet for them to talk about their own struggles.
Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, was overwhelmed by the response. He said, “I’d like to do this on a larger scale.” The Public Theater has their Mobile Unit which moves around New York City, but never does that nationally. We spent a year to try and identify places to go. We decided to do a mobile tour of the Rust Belt. We selected five swing cities that first voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. We didn’t want to go to just places that were Red or Blue. We wanted to go to places where you would have a real dialogue and where you could bring people into a space where people would listen to each other. We did that in the fall of 2018. It was not just spaces, it was union halls, small colleges, we went to churches, we went to school gymnasiums. These were stripped down, bare bones productions. It was quite powerful. End of Part I
On Monday, 12 February the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center presented Baayork Lee in conversation with Robert Viagas. The show was produced in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Betty Corwin, with Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma. It was part of the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History Program.
Baayork Lee is most noted for working with Michael Bennett as his assistant choreographer on A Chorus Line where she created the role of Connie. Throughout her career, she directed and choreographed The King and I, Bombay Dreams, Barnum, Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess and Jesus Christ Superstar and other shows for many national and international companies. The exhaustive list reveals her impressive energy and exceptional talent.
And that is not all. She is a generous soul. Her intention to give back to the community, her verve and vibrant enthusiasm moved her to create a nonprofit organization, National Asian Artists Project. Through her prodigious efforts the N.A.A.P. has established programs educating, cultivating and stimulating audiences and artists of Asian descent. They have produced classical musical theatre ranging from Oklahoma! to OLIVER! with all Asian-American casts. Baayork Lee, the recipient of the 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Award was honored for her commitment to future generations of artists through her work with the N.A.A.P. and theater education programs around the world.
Interviewed by Robert Viagas, journalist and author with thirty-five years’ experience on Playbill Inc., the Tony Awards and author/editor of 19 books on the performing arts, Robert Viagas has proved his mettle. For The Alchemy of Theatre (Applause Books) he worked with Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera and others. His 2009 book, I’m the Greatest Star! (Applause) includes biographies of his A-list genius artists, forty musical stars from George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice to Nathan Lane and Sutton Foster.
Here are excerpts of the enjoyable and lively conversation between Baayork Lee and Robert Viagas
When you were five-years-old you were hired for the original Rogers and Hammerstein’s King and I. Tell us how that happened.
Well, agents came down to Chinatown where I grew up. They went to a school there and my father’s restaurant. And they were looking for kids. We all went uptown and I got the job. (applause)
What was it like working on that show with Yul Brenner and Rogers and Hammerstein?
I learned to sing and dance on the job. I always tell the story of going uptown and getting on the stage at the St. James Theatre. And seeing the chandelier and the red velvet seats. And being on stage for the first time? I just knew that this was where I wanted to be. And I saw the girls warming up backstage. What are they doing? I want to do that. So I knew everybody’s lines and all the songs. I knew the songs for the King and the other parts. I wanted to be in the business.
Even though you were five and even though you didn’t have years of training, you had lines in the show. You were one of the little princesses Ying Yawolak, and they wrote you a speech. Can you tell the story of the speech?
Mrs. Anna is going away and I have a letter I read to her. But I couldn’t read at the time, so my mother helped me and I memorized the lines. “Dear teacher. My goodness gracious. Do not go away…” (audience laughs)
You must have done a great job with that because you were hired for a subsequent musical Flower Drum Song. Tell us the part you played. I’m particularly interested in hearing the story of how you went on in the lead role and you were twelve-years-old.
Well, I was fired at eight-years-old from The King and I because I outgrew my costume. And Rogers and Hammerstein gave us something as a consolation. There were three of us. One girl wanted acting lessons. Another girl wanted piano lessons. And I wanted dance lessons. I got to go to The School of American Ballet and Jerome Robbins helped me get in. I started studying dancing and wanted to be a ballerina. And here comes along Flower Drum Song and Mr. Rogers remembered me and by then a double pirouette was nothing for me now. I was singing and dancing. I got into the show. I was one of the kids in the show. I sang “The Other Generation.” And I don’t know how I got the part. But Anita Ellis was the Fan Tan Fannie girl. She was understudied. And her understudy went on to somebody else and her understudy went on to somebody else. And all of a sudden there wasn’t anyone else but me. And I got to sing F”an Tan Fannie.”
And how did that feel?
At twelve you have no fear, Robert. You have no fear at twelve. You can sing all the songs, do all the lines. You can do everything.
And thanks to N.A.A.P. you’re trying to expand opportunities for Asian-American actors. There was nothing like that in the 1950s, 1960s. Yet you were able to maintain a career through those years. You worked pretty steadily. You got to know certain people and they obviously respected your talent. How were you able to survive and work and succeed as an Asian-American woman in the early 1960s?
First of all I was a kid. So every show is was in I worked as a kid. From Flower Drum Song I went to the Performing Arts High School. And I graduated and I got a phone call from Carol Haney who was a choreographer of Flower Drum Song. She remembered me and said, “I am going to do a show and it’s called Bravo Giovanni.” And we’re going to Broadway. I said I’m going to Julliard. I’m going to become a dancer. And she said “Why don’t you just come and do the show for the summer and then decide.” So that’s what happened. It was a flop. Bravo Giovanni starred Cesare Siepi and it was Michelle Lee’s first show.
But it did win the Tony for Best Score over a Funny Thing Happened…
Oh. You know all the facts, don’t you. So I was sitting on the firescape of the Broadhurst Theatre and I looked and they were putting up a sign for the next musical, Mr. President. So I said, “Hum that looks interesting.” So I auditioned and I got the show. And I played with Nanette Fabray, as Deborah Chakronin and I was a kid in the show. And then there was a knock on my dressing room door. They said, “There’s a man upstairs who wants to see you.” I went upstairs and he gave me his card. He said, “I’m doing a new show. It’s called Here’s Love. I really think you’d be good in the show. Please come and audition.” I said, “Yes, Yes, Yes.” I went downstairs and said this man upstairs? It was Norman Jewison. And so I went over and I auditioned. And I was one of the kids in the show.
That’s a musical based on The Miracle on 34th Street, music with a score by Music Man’s Meredith Wilson. Not as successful.
And so I was a kid. And Michael Bennett was in the show.
You knew him before. What was he like as a kid?
I don’t know. All I can tell you is when I got Flower Drum Song, Michael told me I was so jealous that day at dancing school that you got Flower Drum Song, your second Broadway show and I hadn’t even had one. (audience laughs). But what was he like? I don’t know. Except at that time he said, “I don’t want to dance any more. I want to be a choreographer.” And we all said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure, sure.” But he was very, very serious. I got the call. The musical director was Elliot Lawrence. And he said I’m doing a new show Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. And there’s a part for a shoe shine boy. Would you come and audition? And so I did. And I danced with Sammy Davis.
Michael did manage to choreograph a couple of shows and he did not forget his classmate.
No. So I danced with Sammy in Golden Boy. And Sammy took us to London. My first trip to London. And I got a call from Michael saying he was doing another show. It was A Joyful Noise. And Tommy Tune was in it and Donna McKechnie. And so I came back and I did that show. We came to Broadway. And I got a call for another show when I was in London for Promises Promises and I had to get out of my contract for that. And he helped me get out of my contract and he brought me to do Promises, Promises.
And you were the featured dancer in” Turkey Lurky Time.” I saw you in that show, one of the first shows I saw early on. That is an incredible number. Did you have to wear a neck brace?
We were at the chiropractor at least once a week. All of us. I’d seen the show for three years. I loved being in the chorus. I loved being in the back. I was having a great time. I loved signing in and getting into the theater early. And Michael said you are going to be my dance captain. I said, “Oh, oh.” There were rehearsals and all that, I thought. But he treated me well, so I became his dance captain in Promises Promises.
If you go online and see clips of these songs, you see they are time capsules. You see Joyful Noise, you see Promises, Promises. When you look at all of them you see one Asian-American. What was that like?
I was very lucky. Very happy. My cousin Chester said, “B? You better represent! All Chinatown looking at you!”
Was that a challenge for you? What was it like? Being the One! The One Singular Sensation?
Special. I felt very, very special. I always appreciated being there and representing. Absolutely.
Another special show you did was Seesaw. You were in the chorus of Seesaw, but you did have a featured number in that show. And when they feature that show, they always use the same picture. Tommy Tune who is 6’6’ and they chose you to do a duet with him. And you were attired in masses of balloons and were on point the entire time. I saw you and thought. “Who is this girl?”
I think “Turkey Lurky” may have been bigger. By the time I was in this show I was known and to dance with Tommy Tune was really quite an honor.
I don’t know. With “Turkey Lurky” you were one of three with Donna. But with this number you were next to Tune.
Ah, OK. Michae Bennett was very ahead of his time. We were not the standard kind of, the blonde, 5’5’ you know. But you have Tommy Tune, Baayork Lee and those in the show were all shapes, sizes and colors. And he was very ahead of his time.
Do you remember the conversation or phone call where he mentioned this show he was doing about chorus dancers? Do you remember him discussing the show that became A Chorus Line?
No. But I do remember all through my time working with Michael, he always said, “I want to do a show about dancers.” He’d been saying he wanted to do a show about dancers. Because dancers unlike actors never asked him why. They just did what he told them. (laughter)
He wanted you to be the dance captain on that.
First, he wanted me to be his assistant. At that time in the olden days, you had to have a choreographer or a director or you didn’t work. Jerome Robbins had his dancers. Bob Fosse had his dancers.
Special people that he worked with all the time.
Yes. Because they developed their own style. And they invested in their dancers and their actors. And so Michael Bennett had to get his klan together. And this was very important for me that I finally found a home. Because I danced with Michael Kidd and Peter Gennaro, I had gone from show to show, but I didn’t have an anchor where I would do every commercial, every Broadway show. Anything that that choreographer did, I was part of the plan.
Industrial. Millken Show.
They used to do commercials. Well, Milliken was a fabric manufacturer and the commercials were like shows, lavishly staged.
Yes. They brought in all the choreographers. And you had to be in a Broadway Show. And we got the clothes and at the end of a Broadway run we got a bonus. And when they gave us the checks they used to say, “And here’s one for little Baayork Lee, and one for so and so”…and it was ohhh. money, money, money!
You are not the height of a typical Broadway dancer. That is even written into a Pulitzer Prize winning show. Your height. How did you manage that height issue? Was that a struggle?
Absolutely. I wanted to be Maria Tallchief (renowned ballerina). I wanted to be in the New York City Ballet. I had to throw away my point shoes when I found out I couldn’t be in the company. I was too short. I was competing with Tanaquil Le Clerq (renowned ballerina) and all of his (Balanchine’s) X- wives. (explosive laughter)
On A Chorus Line, initially, I was the assistant. And I would handle the tapes. And then we would go into the workshop with Joseph Papp and I was the assistant. And I would say, “He wants you to line up.” And everybody would line up. And I would say, “He wants you to put your resumes…” Then Michael realized that this wouldn’t work. So he became “The Voice.” So that was the first workshop. And then the second workshop, Michael called me and said, “I would like you to put your life in the show.” And I said “Who wants to know about a short, Asian girl who wanted to be a ballerina?” (someone from the audience answers) That’s exactly what Michael said. And from then on, I was no longer his assistant. I had a role in the show.
Didn’t you have a song that was cut from the show?
Yes. It was called “Confidence.” Back in the old days, Equity wanted to have at least one ethnic person in the show, maybe the orchestra also. So my competition in A Chorus Line was Richie because they could take one ethnic person. And he was African American. So Marvin Hamlisch wrote us a song called “Confidence.” I talked about Flower Drum Song and King and I and he talked about being in Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey and we had to have confidence because we might not get the part. Only one ethnic person could. And then the song was cut. The show was 5 hours long. And we said, “Michael, we can’t cut the song because people need to know about these issues.” He said “I have bigger fish to fry. I need to put a Paul monologue in the show.”
Robert takes out one of the hats from the finale of A Chorus Line. And the original shoes.
It’s Thommie Walsh’s hat.
Baayork, I and Tommie wrote a book about A Chorus Line called On the Line, about the making of A Chorus Line. It’s on Amazon. When they first brought out that hat what did you think?
Well, we had our dance clothes on. And so that wasn’t special. And they said you’re going to wear the same thing, but in blue. And we were very uncomfortable. And the finale was going to be us working on the show, just us, then blackout working together. That’s the ending that Joseph Papp wanted. Michael Bennett had very different ideas. He wanted pizzazz, he wanted costumes, he wanted everything.
That’s the one moment you see the number of the show they’ve been auditioning for.
So when we saw the costumes we thought wow. I was in high heels, fishnets and the outfit was cut up to there.
Very sadly we lost Michael. And the person who’s been in charge and who’s carried the torch has been Baayork Lee who has directed the production in his place all these years. Is there a difference between Baayork Lee’s Chorus Line and Michael Bennett’s?
It’s always Michael Bennett’s Chorus Line. Opening Night downtown he came backstage and said, “It’s your show. You’re going to direct and choreograph this all over the world. But we were Off Broadway. And we didn’t know what this was. And he’s telling me all these things. Like you’re going around the world and you’ll do this and that. And we’re going, “Oh, yes, Michael. Oh yes.” And now forty-three years later I’m saying, Oh, yes, Michael. (applause) It’s Michael Bennett’s show. But A Chorus Line is about the people in the show. And every actor brings himself into the show. And that’s why we’ve evolved the show over the years because obviously we’ve gone to Chile and to Stockholm and Japan and Korea and the actors bring themselves to the rolls. And that’s what’s exciting about it.
Is it hard to direct the role of Connie Wong?
I just tell them me to watch me for five weeks. (laughter) She has to be feisty and high spirited and all those things.
I wanted to ask you about the Tony Award you won.
The National Asian Artist’s Project. I was thinking about forming a company for Asian artists for years and years. I was talking about it. Every time I did a show, we were doing King and I. And I asked Nina Zoie Lam, “Where are all these talented people going to go?” She said, They take their odds and ends jobs and wait for the next King and I or Miss Saigon.” And we did King and I again. Again, the questions came up. Where will all these people go? Steven, God Bless him he’s teaching tonight and couldn’t be here, said, “Let’s do it.” So finally Steven Eng, and Nina Zoie Lam and I founded the N.A.A.P. to give the talented Asian artists and Asians a platform to show their talents. And also to educate the young kids back in Chinatown where I grew up to go to their schools and give them the opportunity and give them a choice. They don’t have to go to Harvard. They can go to Broadway. (laughter, applause)
I’ve seen some of the shows. They don’t try to do Asian themed shows. They did Hello Dolly. They did Oklahoma. They did Carousel. And the amazing thing about it is that the nearly all Asian actors in it? Well, you’re not seeing Asian actors. You’re seeing Hello Dolly and Carousel.
They are talented, talented actors. And that’s the most important thing. (applause)
Of all the work Baayork has done, that is what she won her Tony for.
The evening closed with audience questions and photographs that Baayork took with friends. Indeed, no one was leaving the Bruno Walter Auditorium before they snatched the opportunity to congratulate and thank Baayork for her entertaining responses, love, enthusiasm and grace. It was a most memorable, uplifting evening. Below is a clip that Robert Viagas referred to as being a time capsule. It’s the rollicking number from Promises, Promises, “Turkey Lurky Time.”