Excerpted from “Lives Rescued from Silence” by playwright Lynn Nottage,
Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2003
A couple of years ago, I began researching a play about a lonely African American woman searching for intimacy in New York City during the early 1900s. As a native New Yorker, I'd become intrigued with the social lives of African American city dwellers in the early 20th century. …I spent hours in the New York Public Library, obsessively exploring the dimly lighted honky-tonks and brothels of the notorious Negro tenderloin district and the cramped, overpopulated residences of San Juan Hill. I could almost hear the syncopated ragtime piano filling the saloons and dance halls in the Negro districts. These African American neighborhoods promised a wealth of untapped stories….
Sitting in the main hall of the New York Public Library, I had an epiphany: If my family hadn't preserved our stories, and history certainly had not, then who would? It led me to revisit the shoe box of neglected photographs beside my writing desk. It was placed there for a reason. … In a rare candid moment, my grandmother once shared that her mother was a Barbadian seamstress who created intimate apparel for women at the turn of the century. She arrived in New York alone, and soon after began corresponding with a handsome Barbadian laborer consigned to the Panama Canal. The long distance exchange led to a short-lived marriage a year later.
[...] In hunting for a play, I established an intimate dialogue with my great grandparents. I was finally able to release them from the shoe box and allow their memory to breathe. I never expected that my family would be the wonderful byproduct of months of research to craft a play…