Lynn Nottage: Sweat (Theatre Communications Group, 2017)

Sweat, a play about the devastating effects of de-industrialization on a group of steel workers in the small town of Reading, Pennsylvania, won Lynn Nottage (1964-) a second Pulitzer Prize (the first was for Ruined, 2009, on the abuse of women in a Congo torn by civil war), putting her in the company of other multiple prize-winning playwrights like Eugene O’Neill (4), Edward Albee (3), Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and August Wilson (all 2-times winners)*.

About two and a half hours drive from Brooklyn, Lynn Nottage’s home base, Reading was one of the poorest cities in America according to the 2010 US census, 41.3 percent of its c. 88.000 citizens living in poverty, its fortunes tied to its factories like other cities in the so-called ‘rust belt’ states in the northern part of the US near the Great Lakes. Hard hit by de-industrialization and corporate greed, companies moving and outsourcing production to countries where labor is cheaper and regulations fewer (Stan, the bartender in the play: “You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico”), resulting in economic decline and urban decay in cities like Reading.  

Prompted by a New York Times article specifically and the Occupy Wall Street-movement in general, Sweat is the result of several trips to Reading over a period of some two and a half years, beginning in 2011, Nottage interviewing citizens from all walks of life feeling marginalized by the mainstream media and eager to ‘go on record,’ some of their stories fictionalized in the play.

Set in a fictive bar in Reading – a ‘neutral’ meeting place – , the play follows a multiethnic group of women steel workers in their 40’s or 50’s: Tracey, German American, Cynthia, African American, and Jessie, Italian American, over a period of ten months, from January to November 2000 (and the election of George W. Bush as president of the United States), as they see their American Dream of hard work as the road to success, prosperity and upward social mobility crumbling.

And finding out that “being poor is one of the hardest jobs in the world,” as Lynn Nottage puts it, stigmatizing the jobless, and dividing old friends along economic, social and racial fault lines.

The play is bookended by scenes set in 2008 with two friends, white Jason and African American Chris, talking with their parole officer after having served prison sentences, showing them to have inherited the problems of their parents, with drugs, White Nationalism, Latino-bashing (Oscar, Stan’s young Columbian helpmate), etc. as ever present and tempting ‘solutions’.

“Reading was …” is a sentence repeating itself in the interviews conducted by Lynn Nottage:

Nostalgia is a disease many white Americans have (Make America Great Again? UFI). I thought this is a city that cannot conceive of itself in the present or future tense. It is a microcosm of what is happening in America today. We are a country that has lost our narrative. We can’t project our future because we don’t know where we are going.”

*Other African American winners in drama: Suzan Lori-Parks, Charles Fuller, and Charles Gordone.

UFI/ 26 December 2019   

Note: In an interview in The Guardian (22 February 2016), Lynn Nottage says that there is a current generation of black female playwrights who are making up for lost time.

And 2020 will see the publication of new plays by established writers like Suzan Lori-Parks (White Noise), Lynn Nottage herself (Mlima’s Tale), and even the ‘foremother’, 88-year old Adrienne Kennedy (He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box), all Theatre Communications Group.

And this year Anchor Books has published a major play, Notes from the Field, also made into a HBO-movie, by Anna Deavere Smith (“Rich kids get mischief, poor kids get pathologized and incarcerated”), women playwrights no longer confined to writing domestic dramas, but having the muscularity and vision to write state-of-the-nation narratives, according to actress Tanya Moodie.