In this series for T, Emily Spivack, the author of “Worn Stories,” interviews creative types about their most prized possessions. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage is known for her plays “Intimate Apparel,” “Ruined,” “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” and “Sweat.” She also wrote an original work, “Submerged,” for T’s America 2024-themed Culture issue. Here, she describes a restorative trip to Africa and a souvenir she found during her travels.
My mother died and my daughter was born a month apart. One of the last things my mother said to me was, “I want you to take a journey to take care of yourself.” She knew I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. She had always wanted me to go to West Africa. She’d traveled there multiple times as a young woman, but I hadn’t made the trip — I had never been to the continent before. My husband took care of our daughter, who was 1 or 2 years old by the time I took a monthlong trip to Senegal and Gambia with my friend Angela.
It was one of those meandering trips where you don’t have any itinerary. You just follow your impulses. You’re blowing with the wind and allowing wherever the trip takes you to take you. It was an extraordinary, soulful experience.
I never had the need to bring something home from a trip in the way that I did from this one. I wanted something that represented where I was and where I wanted to be. The last two days, I started hunting. I went to an antique store in Dakar filled with beautiful masks, but none of them spoke to me. I described to the dealer what I wanted. He said, “Come with me. I’m going to take you on a little journey.”
We drove outside of Dakar to some sort of suburban community. Once we began driving, I thought, “Oh gosh, where are we going? Who is this man, and is this safe?” It was a leap of faith. We wove through these paths to a little house that felt like a storage space, filled with artifacts and masks covered in cloths and wrapped in newspaper. He unwrapped this one piece for me. It was an Ekoi head unlike anything I’d ever seen, and probably a hundred years old. I thought, “This is it.”
I haggled with him on the price. I bought it, along with another Ekoi head, for about $150. With no sense of it being as fragile as it was, he put it in a bag and handed it to me. Then I had to figure out how to get it home so that it wouldn’t break.
In my dining room, it sits on top of a china cabinet that belonged to my great-grandmother and that holds crystal that belonged to both of my grandmothers. It occupies a place of honor.
Over 20 years later, this beautiful head of a black woman still speaks to me. It’s one of the first things I see in the morning. She looks strong and powerful and unapologetically black. That’s just the way I want to face the day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
“Intimate Apparel: the Opera,” composed by Ricky Ian Gordon with libretto by Lynn Nottage, is coming to Lincoln Center in late February 2020.