Unknotting Nottage

Lynn Nottage's satire on black America comes equipped with morals—but should it?

When an African American woman in a Lynn Nottage play worries about her roots, she's more likely to mean her hairdo than her ethnic heritage. The moment I'm thinking of comes from Mud, River, Stone, the heroine of which is an affluent tourist trapped in an African drought, but it exemplifies the kind of sardonic jab at the comforts of the newly arrived black bourgeoisie that's a basic element of Nottage's new play, Fabulation. This awareness of the comedy inherent in black prosperity is a major part of what makes Nottage's voice distinctive among the fascinating current crop of African American women playwrights. It is the wit of a writer whose interest in the world is broad enough to include a sense of its disparities, and who can't help finding at least some of them, like the juxtaposition of roots and "roots," irresistibly funny. That the bigger disparities in Nottage's work inevitably concern white and black, or rich and poor, doesn't eliminate this comic sense when a writer has such a panoramic view of life; it simply enriches it with a degree of tragic pathos, as well as some wonderment at a world so full of paradox and surprise. The pious black hero of Nottage's early Crumbs From the Table of Joy goes out looking for Father Divine and comes home married to a white woman who may or may not be a concentration camp survivor. A Nottage play, like history, is full of discoveries; you never know what, or who, will turn up next.

Fabulation is a picaresque narrative, with Undine, the heroine, enduring wild reversals of fortune and journeying to improbable places, and the play's first joke is that she can do this without ever leaving New York; for those who've escaped from the projects of Brooklyn to the penthouses of Manhattan, going back is as big a trauma as getting trapped in the Lisbon earthquake is for Candide. This is perhaps a clue: Like Voltaire's hero, Undine has learned something by the end of her travels about living simply and cultivating—well, if not her garden, at least her familial roots. Nottage gets a little sententious about this idea, especially toward the end, which gives her play an uncertain feel. (As the quite different Intimate Apparel also demonstrated, she has trouble winding things up.) Her assertiveness about the value of family and children rings oddly because so much of the piece has been spent showing that Undine's working-class family, on which she has brutally turned her back since graduating from college, is just as comically grotesque as the fast-lane friends who, at the play's start, turn their backs on her when she finds out she is penniless.

More readily forgiving, the poor are less phony than the rich, but not less funny; it's hard to imagine what the cynical, high-living Undine we see in the opening scenes will make of the bleak, shoestring future she seems to be facing so cheerfully at the end, back to being plain Sharona Watkins and bringing up another of the project's fatherless children. Indeed, Nottage goes so far into the beauty of this dubious fantasy that she even makes the baby's father—the apparently compulsive criminal who has cleaned out Undine's fortune—into a voice of morality, who has been driven to his crimes in a last desperate attempt to awaken her heart. This is cheating on reality, and on comedy, with a vengeance, and you'd be tempted to dismiss the author out of hand if the scene weren't preceded by half a dozen bits of brilliant satiric comedy, including two perfect gems: a hilarious rendering of a drug rehab group, and a mordant sequence in which Undine/Sharona doesn't quite become an anti-bureaucratic activist in a welfare office. These scenes show Nottage at her best: sure of hand, generous of heart, yet heedless of all pruderies. An artist who can play the panpipes so alluringly shouldn't interrupt herself to pound on the moral drum.

Woodard (center) and homegirls: Re-entry to Brooklyn
photo: Joan Marcus
Woodard (center) and homegirls: Re-entry to Brooklyn

Still, Nottage isn't the first comic writer to have struggled with this problem, and in Fabulation she masters it more often than not. A perfect instance is the motif that supplies the title. "Fabulation" means the making of fables, the process by which Sharona has turned herself into Undine. When the fable collapses, she comes home to Brooklyn to find her hapless brother, who has become a security guard like his parents before him, still attempting to write the great black American epic that he was struggling with when she left home 14 years ago, in which the central metaphor for African American life is Brer Rabbit. We hear fragments of this epic (the word fabulation comes up in the course of his describing it), and the balance in them of ludicrousness and truth is exact: We get an image that strikes at the core of Undine's life (and human life generally) but is still a hopeless piece of pretentious nonsense, never to be completed. At such moments, Nottage isn't far from the great writers of a century ago, whom she clearly admires (this is her second play in a year to contain some reference to Edith Wharton).

Fabulation is such an intriguing script to write about that I have to confess, guiltily, to having left myself next to no space to praise the first-rate cast of Kate Whoriskey's lively, occasionally overly broad, production. Charlayne Woodard navigates the demanding central role with a mixture of flamboyant charm and rooted passion that's a wonder in its own right; I particularly liked, among her able supporters, Myra Lucretia Taylor as an unexpectedly feisty grandmother and Steven Kunken as the haughtiest ex-crackhead in history.

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