'My America'

"My America" (Violet LeMay / Special to The Baltimore Sun / September 21, 2012)

It took Lynn Nottage 20 years to wrest even one good result from the state of Utah's middle-of-the-night execution of a black prisoner.

Her monologue, "Kill the N#&&@R," is based on the 1992 lethal injection of William Andrews for three murders that were committed by an accomplice. (In Nottage's play, the death-row inmate is named "Jimmy Bates.")

At the time, Nottage, now 47, was an impressionable young woman working in the press office for Amnesty International. She was ecstatic when the governor seemed to have granted a second stay of execution for Andrews.

"When I went to bed that evening, I thought we had saved him," she says.

"I had more faith in the criminal justice system than I do now, and I was absolutely, 100 percent sure that he was not going to die. Waking up the next morning to the news that he'd been executed remains one of the most devastating experiences of my life."

Nottage left Amnesty International within the year, and over time the intensity of her anguish was blunted.

But after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in February while walking in a Florida neighborhood, all of Nottage's pain, anger and sadness resurfaced. The monologue, which will be read by actress Maechi Aharanwa, is partly a memorial to Martin, though the teen is never named.

"Twenty years later, I'm surprised that we're still having this conversation," Nottage says, "and that there aren't more checks and balances to keep young black men from effectively being lynched."

But Nottage hasn't won acclaim as a playwright because her work is unrelentingly grim. Her first major success, "Intimate Apparel" (which had its world premiere at Center Stage in 2003), is a delicate tone poem about a black seamstress in early 20th-century New York.

Her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Ruined," has been widely praised for telling the stories — with warmth, humanity and humor — of women who were raped in the war-torn Congo.

"Ultimately, we're incredibly resilient creatures," she says. "People really do get on with the business of living."

In Nottage's case, it was Andrews' execution that inspired her to become a playwright.

"I wanted to have a certain kind of dialogue with the culture," she says.

"And I was not achieving it by working my ass off every day writing press releases and op-eds. I decided, 'I'm a storyteller, and perhaps I can achieve the same goals by writing in the medium that I love.' "

Lee Blessing

It's been two years since the kid jumped in front of the train, but Lee Blessing still can't get it out of his head.

Perhaps that's because the young man with the dull blond hair was standing just a short distance away from the playwright before he leaped onto the tracks in front of the massive yellow locomotive. Perhaps it's because Blessing never saw his face.

And perhaps it's because the dead boy was about the same age as the students that Blessing teaches in his creative writing course at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

So when it came time to write a monologue on the theme of "My America," Blessing found himself grappling with impulses similar to those that animate his best-known work.

1988's "A Walk in the Woods" faces down catastrophe on a global scale. The play deals with the relationship between two negotiators in the arms race, an American and a Russian, but the inclination to destroy seems to be universal.