In this interview, Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright and Brown University class of 1986, and her daughter, Ruby Aiyo Gerber, Brown University class of 2020, discuss their experiences at Brown, living through the COVID-19 global pandemic, and processing the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Nottage and Gerber both begin by explaining why they decided to attend Brown University. Nottage cites a high school guidance counselor and Gerber notes the open curriculum. Nottage goes on to share how her time at Brown impacted her life since graduation, emphasizing her time with professors George Bass and Paula Vogel. Gerber similarly speculates that her time in the classroom, learning how to challenge materials, and meeting a diverse group of students will influence her future trajectory. Nottage and Gerber also consider the differences of their Brown experiences.
The conversation then turns to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Nottage confesses that after hearing very early reports of the virus in China, she was implored to stock up on masks, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. She also underscores the sadness she experienced when the virus appeared in the United States and forced the closing of her opera, Intimate Apparel, and Broadway show, MJ, that she had been working on for years. She felt these losses in addition to the cancellation of classes at Columbia School of the Arts where she is a professor. Nottage then explains that the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police came just as she was beginning to find a new flow to her daily life, inflicting more trauma on the nation and forcing her to take action. She details participating in a group that drafted a letter titled “Dear White People” which took a critical look at white American theatre.
Likewise, Gerber recalls the anticipation of Brown’s transition to online learning, mourning the loss of on-campus classes, and bonding with friends who are also enduring the pandemic. She describes a lack of support for the transition from the university’s administration as well as concern for the uncertainty of the job market. She also discusses being inspired by the protests that occurred in response to state violence but also the mental health toll this time is taking on Black people.
Both Nottage and Gerber highlight that their biggest concern is that this moment of civil unrest will not initiate as much change as is needed. They also agree that the candidates in the 2020 Presidential election leave many feeling voiceless. Nottage and Gerber take some time to share some of the ways they are managing their mental health while also trying to evoke change.
Nottage closes the interview by sharing a story from her time at Brown. She explains that she and a group of students created an inclusive “frarority” to counteract threatening fraternities on campus. The result was Phi Gamma Lambda – a multicultural, LGBTQ+ friendly organization that operated on Wriston Quad for one year while surrounding fraternities verbally assaulted the group and physically assaulted its building.
Finally, Gerber ends by noting some of the aspects that she hopes gets included in the Black Lives Matter movement. These include the complexity of Black identities; trans identities; and institutional accountability.
Recorded on June 19, 2020 via Zoom
Interviewed by Mary Murphy, Nancy L. Buc ’65 LLD‘94 hon Pembroke Center Archivist, and Feven Teklu, Senior Leadership Giving Officer
Suggested Chicago style citation: Nottage, Lynn and Gerber, Ruby Aiyo. Interview. By Mary Murphy and Feven Teklu. Pembroke Center Oral History Project, Brown University. June 19, 2020.
Lynn Nottage (born November 2, 1964) is an American playwright whose work often deals with the lives of marginalized people. She is a professor of Playwriting at Columbia University.
She was the first (and remains the only) woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice; the first in 2009 for Ruined, and the second in 2017 for Sweat. She is also a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship award winner (2007).
Lynn Nottage was born in Brooklyn, New York; her mother Ruby Nottage was a schoolteacher and principal; her father Wallace was a child psychologist. She went to Saint Ann’s School for elementary school, and graduated from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School. While in high school, she wrote her first full-length play, The Darker Side of Verona, about an African-American Shakespeare company traveling through the south.
She attended Brown University (AB 1986, DFA 2011) and the Yale School of Drama (MFA, 1989). After graduation, Nottage worked in Amnesty International’s press office for four years.
Recently, Nottage premiered the play, Floyd’s, at the Guthrie theater in Minneapolis, MN. She wrote the book for the world premiere musical adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees (2019). Current work includes an opera adaptation of her play Intimate Apparel composed by Ricky Ian Gordon, commissioned by The Met/Lincoln Center Theater. It was scheduled to premiere at Lincoln Center in spring 2020 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. She is also writing the book to the upcoming musical MJ, featuring the music of Michael Jackson.
Nottage is married to filmmaker Tony Gerber with whom she co-founded the production company, Market Road Films. They have two children, Ruby Aiyo and Melkamu Gerber. They live in New York.
Ruby Aiyo Gerber attended Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York, before attending Brown University where she concentrated in Africana Studies and poetry through the lens of Black temporality. During her time at Brown, Gerber served as President of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and as co-editor of Bluestockings Magazine. Gerber graduated in 2020 during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
[Biographic information derived from the Lynn Nottage website, Wikipedia, and other online sources.].