A Play About A Small Pennsylvania City Is What Art Should Look Like In Trump's America

Lynn Nottage is making a new kind of political theater.

Since Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat” opened at New York City’s Studio 54 earlier this month ― marking the Brooklyn-born playwright’s Broadway debut ― the theater world has felt a little different

The play is small in setting and large in scope. Pivoting in time from 2000 to 2008, the story follows a tight group of working-class people ― spanning generations; black, white, Latino ― who feel tethered to a dying city plundered by factory layoffs. The particular town is Reading, Pennsylvania, but that fact feels necessary one moment and utterly irrelevant the next. Nottage’s Reading is eerily reflective, it seems, of many small American cities facing layoffs and accompanying pangs of uncertainty, rage and despair. While her modest cast of nine carefully-crafted, fictional characters is based on several years worth of in-person interviews and research, their stories flood together into a narrative that bleeds beyond one family, one factory or one fractured hometown. 

“What I saw ― and what was the initial impulse for going to Reading ― was that there was a large swath of people across the country who were in a great deal of pain,” Nottage explained in a phone interview with The Huffington Post, days after her play’s opening night. “And that story was not being told. And I think that, unfortunately, the fact that we are where we are is because there are people who were shouting and who felt unheard, and as a result, they made some extreme decisions that have impacted and jeopardized all of us.”

Dubbed “The First Theatrical Landmark of the Trump Era,” Nottage’s attempt to answer that itchy question plaguing a country divided ― How did we get here? ― has provided Broadway with a much-needed elemental shake-up. It’s not to say theater hasn’t attempted to tell stories fundamental to the politics of our time before, or reflect on the lives of people outside of its capitol, New York City. But Nottage’s approach, likened to a journalistic method in which she spent years alongside director Kate Whoriskey getting to know the people of Reading, has tested the role of art in politics. Her desire to push popular conversations forward, her desire to not only mirror but engage with culture right now, has offered a contemporary model for connecting with audiences outside of Broadway’s institutions.

The cast of "Sweat."
The cast of "Sweat."

”Sweat” is ecstatic and devastating, peppered with sweet humor that can easily descend into knee-buckling hate. It revolves around a watering hole, where factory workers past and present discuss the realities of their vanishing lives. These conversations happen in two loosely defined points in time: in the year before Sept. 11, 2001 and moments before the global financial crisis of 2008. Throughout, the characters profess honest and sometimes hard-to-hear opinions about race and entitlement, and they deal, sometimes violently, with the effects of incarceration, immigration and the opioid crisis.

Reading’s experiences, unfiltered on Nottage’s stage, roll out in fragments, leaving the audience to piece together an answer to that lingering question: How did we get here? If there is an answer, it’s stuck in a heap of emotions, tangled in a mass of perspectives. If we can’t look back, Nottage seems to imply, can we look forward? For her, after countless hours spent speaking with the people of a small Pennsylvania city, the answer is yes.

“In order for us to move forward, we as a community must take care of each other,” she explained to HuffPost. “When we become fractured, and we retreat into our individual silos, we create these cultural collisions that destroy culture as a whole. [...] In order for us to move forward, we have to figure out a way for all these disparate voices to stand in one place and find common ground.”

Read more of our conversation with the “Sweat” playwright below:

Chris Davis as Chris and Lance Coadie Williams as Evan in "Sweat."
Chris Davis as Chris and Lance Coadie Williams as Evan in "Sweat."

You’ve mentioned in interviews that this play was inspired by your own friends who’ve suddenly found themselves close to poverty. How exactly did you decide upon Reading as the setting for “Sweat”?

I was really wanting to sort of understand with more depth the nature of what was happening in this country on a large scale to folks who were living in these mid-sized deindustrial cities. Reading, Pennsylvania, seemed like an ideal city in that it had once been quite a robust manufacturing town, with its base being textiles and pretzel and candy factories and baking factories and steel factories. It was a place that, for years, if you got off a bus, within an hour you could have a job. Within the course of maybe 30 years, those jobs began to disappear to the point where it had a staggering unemployment rate and was deemed the poorest city of its size in America. So that is why that city in particular ― that’s what drew me there.

The preparation for the play began when ― if what I’ve read is correct ― Oregon Shakespeare commissioned a play from you about American revolutions.

Right, yes. Oregon Shakespeare gave me a commission to write a play specifically about an American revolution. They invited playwrights to really think expansively. They wanted large-scale plays that investigated key moments in American history. I became very interested in the moment at the turn of the 21st century, which was the deindustrial revolution, and how that was really going to reshape our cultural narrative in ways that hadn’t been done since the mid-century with the civil rights movement.

What was your first day in Reading like?

Well, it’s interesting to enter a place that you don’t know at all. When we drove into the city, we were sort of surprised to see a lot of physical beauty ― homes that are colonial in many respects, mid-century; homes that are ornate and quite lovely. So that was the first thing we encountered. And we were like, perhaps we’re in the wrong city! This can’t possibly be the Reading that we’ve read about.

What we discovered is that a lot of those houses have been segmented and house multiple families inside of them. So that was our first impression of Reading: as a place of physical beauty, but underneath, was a city that was struggling and crumbling. And then when you get inside of the city, you find these people with these really rich histories, who in some instances felt trapped by circumstance, because they couldn’t find jobs in the city and because [...] they didn’t have the economic means to leave. So they have this strange investment in seeing the city resurrected, but they are not able to do that.

But the fascinating thing about Reading is that it’s an over 50 percent Latino city, so you definitely feel the flavor of the Puerto Rican and Dominican and much, much smaller Mexican populations.

How many people did you speak to in Reading throughout the course of your research for the play?

Oh, I can’t even [count] ― many, many, many, many, many people. It was over the course of a number of years, so some people we spoke to over great lengths and multiple times over the course of years. A lot of people who we interviewed once, we did very short, five- to 10-minute interviews. There were people [with whom] we did half-hour interviews. And then there were people who we got to know, and over the years, we didn’t just do interviews, we had many conversations. We were able to peel away the layers and figure out what their personal struggles or triumphs were.

Director Kate Whoriskey and writer Lynn Nottage join cast members on stage during curtain call for "Sweat" during its Broadwa
Director Kate Whoriskey and writer Lynn Nottage join cast members on stage during curtain call for "Sweat" during its Broadway opening night at Studio 54 on March 26.

Were there any initial obstacles to bringing the story to the stage?

I didn’t feel as though there were many obstacles in the writing of the story. The obstacle was before writing it and sort of deciding what to write about. Having so many things to look at and trying to distill how to tell a story that’s mentally complicated and isn’t just representative of Reading, but of what I felt was happening as a whole. And how the play can serve as a metaphor of deindustrialization without being overly heavy-handed.

But also, I’m one of these playwrights ― I’m not afraid of the words “political theater.” I resent the fact that in this day and age, [playwrights] are supposed to be invisible in the storytelling. I thought, it’s very rare in any other form that you’re asked to disappear. I think that now is the time, particularly as artists, that we have to take the initiative and really engage with the culture and say things that people really do not want to hear, in order to push the dial forward. So if you talk about an obstacle, it was just understanding that there would be some resistance to a play in which the playwright carried a hammer.

After conducting your research, did you feel as though you needed to weave together separate perspectives into a cohesive narrative, or did you immediately find that all these realities ― related to labor, race, immigration, incarceration, the opioid crisis ― had a central point of origin?

I found that the city ― everything ― is integrated. People say, “Oh, the play is about a lot of things.” But you know, the fact is, you can’t tell one story without telling the other. It is a city where you have a workforce that’s been diminished, and as a result, a lot of people have turned to substance abuse, and you have these collisions that happen, when people become really panicked and begin to turn on each other and place blame across the racial divide. So I found that all these stories were so intertwined, you couldn’t tell one without the other.

As an audience member, you watch these characters, and, even as you’re developing this incredible well of empathy, it’s almost impossible not to pass judgment on some of their beliefs ― particularly when Tracey expresses xenophobic ideals or Jason discounts Affirmative Action. It’s hard not to see them, in those rare moments, as either good or bad. How did you handle the idea of morality throughout writing and developing this play?

You know, when I was sitting down to write the play, I knew that I was writing about people who all had individual flaws, which I think is true of most of us. In these particular circumstances, everyone is trying to survive and, as a result, make incredibly difficult and compromised choices ― compromised choices that are detrimental to the entire community ― in order to protect the individual. The phrase, and I’ve said this to the media, that I used when I was talking to people is “replace judgment with curiosity.” I was trying to understand who these people are fundamentally, rather than entering with resistance, because I think that if I entered Reading with resistance, the people I sat down with would not have told me their stories, and I would have not been able to find a way to build empathy.

Lynn Nottage and Kate Whorisky.
Lynn Nottage and Kate Whorisky.

Following the 2016 election, conversations in the media started revolving around the Rust Belt working class and these people who may or may not have voted for the current president because they felt “left behind” by the past administration. They felt invisible. But you wrote this play before the election. What has it felt like to create a piece of theater that seems so perfectly centered in culture right now?

It’s interesting. You know Werner Herzog, the filmmaker? He said something that I’ve sort of embraced. He said the role of the artist is to keep their eyes open when everyone else’s are shut. And I do think it’s our responsibility to begin asking those difficult questions perhaps earlier than the culture at large. I think that when art and culture collide in moments like this it’s because of a certain necessity. That’s what I felt. I began asking those questions because those questions were not being asked by the culture at large. And the play happened to collide with culture at just the right moment. I do think that’s part of our responsibility as artists.

How have the people of Reading reacted to the play? Have they seen it? Have you been in contact with the town?

At the end of our run at the Public Theater, [before the play went to Broadway], one of the things that we decided to do was to embrace the mission of the Public, which is really to take the play to the people. To take it out of that proscenium setting, out of the institution, and we took the play to Reading. The entire cast. We did a very stripped-down version of it for a hundred folks in Reading, Pennsylvania, in their Miller theater. It was kind of an electric evening because the actors were very scared about portraying people in the town that absolutely were very familiar with a lot of the cultural references in the play. But at the very end, there were a ton of questions and people seemed to be quite moved. And it almost became like a revival meeting, in which people stood up and testified and told their personal stories about what they’re going through. It was very, very moving.

But, by the same token, there have been a couple of people, and they tended by and large to be business people, who worried about ... will this be bad for business in Reading? I think that any time you open up a dialogue around a particular city, it has to be good for the city.

Was anyone outright angry about the play?

I don’t know that anyone … certainly, when we did the performance [in Reading], no one was angry about the play. I think there’s only been one person I’ve encountered who was angry about the play, from Reading, because it was bad for business. Be damned the people who are struggling, it’s bad for business.

Did you feel indebted to these people in any way? Did adapting their stories create another layer of responsibility for you as a playwright?

I think it’s not adapting the stories that creates a different layer of responsibility. Sort of getting to know them and forging friendships certainly did. Spending so much time with people you care about and wanting to see a space that’s struggling thrive. I think that’s where I feel my responsibility lies ― with those friendships.

Theatre marquee unveiling for Lynn Nottage's play "Sweat" on Broadway at Studio 54.
Theatre marquee unveiling for Lynn Nottage's play "Sweat" on Broadway at Studio 54.

What was it like to work on this play over the course of a few years? What were some of the benefits of taking your time to tell this story?

I think the benefits of doing it over the course of years is that you can track the movement of people. My assumption, when we first went into Reading, was that we were going to be very typically looking for pockets of resilience ― people who were struggling and found ways to resurrect their lives. Because as a writer, I’m always attracted to the light. I’m never attracted to the darkness or the ugly stories. I’m really looking for people who’ve struggled and really pulled themselves out of their circumstances. Just over the course of two years, you can track and see where people are going, how they are navigating difficult times.

That was the benefit, of getting to track people over time and getting a sense of the movement of the city as a whole. And how it was reacting to this article about it being the poorest of cities, how it went into emergency mode and tried to resurrect itself. And where it is today. There are these amazing things that are happening now. In the center of town, there’s a DoubleTree Hotel, in which the manager has committed to hiring 70 percent people within walking distance of the hotel. He’s someone who gives people second chances, too. If you’ve checked that box that says you’ve gone to prison or you’ve been through rehab, he’s not going to automatically reject your application. When you go into that hotel, you feel the vibrancy and the vitality. It’s a perfect case of the community taking care of itself. When it does that, it succeeds.

Personally, do you have hope for towns like Reading or other cities similarly situated across the U.S.?

I do think that if cities like Reading ― you take the example of the DoubleTree, when cities begin to invest in everybody in the town ― those cities have a good chance of survival. I know that there are a lot of cities saying, you know, let’s let these inner-city neighborhoods die and let’s bring people back from the suburbs. And that’s tough. That’s when you create “ghettos,” in which people become trapped and have no opportunity to leave. But I think that when you say, you know, we’re invested in everyone here, and [ask], ‘How can we build businesses that are inclusive? Businesses that really create opportunity? How can we be creative in the new businesses?’ What Reading realizes is that a lot of those manufacturing jobs aren’t going to come back. So they have to create other ways to employ folks, and I think the more creative cities can be, the better chance they have of resurrecting themselves.

In the great New Yorker profile that came out last month, you are quoted as saying “the goal is to create a whole generation of resistance,” in reference to arts institutions closing in and demanding that playwrights shape their visions to the space. Broadly speaking, what is your hope for the future of theater?

A perfect example is a time like this, in places like Reading. What they really need, I feel, are storytellers. They need art, they need celebration. But they don’t have those institutions, because all the cultural institutions are in New York and Philadelphia and Chicago. I think that we as artists need to figure out strategies in which we can pull away from some of those institutions that are asking us to create work that can only exist in those spaces and figure out ways to take art to places that are sort of much more hungry for it. And become more agile in the way in which we make art.

Are there any plans to tour “Sweat” to places outside of New York?

I know that Oskar Eustis became very excited when we did the production in Reading. He said he wants to fundraise to figure out a way to bring, if not “Sweat,” plays like “Sweat” to small towns that don’t have regional theaters and don’t have these big traveling houses. So that people who aren’t used to engaging with theater can come in contact with stories that really resonate with them. What if you take “Sweat” to the Rust Belt towns or upstate New York or small towns in Connecticut or around the country? How cool would it be to begin igniting some sort of dialogue around the issues that are raised in “Sweat” with people who are really touched by some of what’s happening in the play?

The tail end is that we’re building this big performance and installation in Reading that will be there in July. The goal is to create something that’s really beautiful for the city, that’s reflective of all of the people; a celebration of them. Something that builds empathy, so that when they leave it, they have a greater sense of who their neighbors are and might be more inclined to reach out to them. It’s going to be at the Franklin Street railroad station in Reading, downtown. It was closed in the ‘80s and became dilapidated, and then five years ago, they renovated the space. Since then, I don’t think it’s been used for anything. So we asked if we could reanimate the space with art. We’ve done a great deal of fundraising and that’s what we’re going to do. It’s our gift to Reading. Our way of saying thank you for inviting us in and allowing us to get to know you.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.