The walls before her hang heavily with inspiration. Ms. Nottage pointed to an Ernest Crichlow painting of a young girl resting shyly at a window. “I can imagine her story,” she said. “Is she peering out at the world? Is she hiding? Each time I sit here, I come up with a different story.”
Here are edited excerpts from a conversation last week.
The piece on the steps behind your chair is “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” a redrafting of the flag the N.A.A.C.P. flew over Fifth Avenue in the 1920s and ’30s when a lynching took place. What about it spoke to you?
That one is Terry Adkins, which I really responded to, given what’s happening in America to African-American men — it resonates, and when I sit there, I think, “Yeah, it is happening, and still happening, and we have to remind ourselves.”
You grew up in this house?
I moved back in when my mother got very ill. She had Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was pregnant, and so, literally, I had my baby, my mother died, and we stayed. [Her father, Wally, lives on the ground floor.] I remember standing on these steps — my brother and I used to put on plays when we were little, for guests.
Your parents were collectors of, and friends of, artists who form the historical core of midcentury African-American art. Your father sat on the board of Cinque Gallery in Harlem; your mother, Ruby, bought art in Africa in the ’60s. Was that unusual?
I think it was very unusual for African-Americans at the time to be collecting art, but they were deeply invested in supporting the work of African-American artists. [Ms. Nottage, who sits on the board of BRIC, a nonprofit that initiates arts programs in Brooklyn, said in an email, “They were not artists, but I continue their legacy through the work that I do and my support of other artists, as a collector and collaborator.”]
As a writer, why plays?
It’s a communal, collective art form. Theater’s the most effective tool in building empathy.
You might be describing the potential of a collection: It can foster a conversation among sometimes aggressively disparate points of view. Can its dialogues be a mirror of the “national conversation”?
Just about every single piece that’s in this space is about an African-American artist in conversation with the culture. I think that if I lived a hundred years ago in a village in Africa, I would be the griot who’s collecting all the tales of the village — that I have this real need, at least as an African-American woman, to go on record, to collect our stories, to ensure our stories are heard.