Playwright Lynn Nottage Exposes Racial Dynamic of the Eroding Middle Class

In the new play Sweat, Nottage grapples with the contemporary issues of a challenging economy and the redefinition of the American dream.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage poses for photos before receiving the annual iWitness Award, from the Jewish World Watch organization, for her activism to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict and sexual violence against women and girls in Democratic Republic of Congo, during a ceremony in Los Angeles on Oct. 5, 2010.  
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage poses for photos before receiving the annual iWitness Award, from the Jewish World Watch organization, for her activism to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict and sexual violence against women and girls in Democratic Republic of Congo, during a ceremony in Los Angeles on Oct. 5, 2010.   MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

For over 20 years now, master playwright Lynn Nottage has created work that has boldly inserted black women into the American theater conversation. Her numerous honors include a MacArthur “genius” grant and the Pulitzer Prize for Ruined, her play centered on Congolese women surviving their nation’s civil war that earned then-newbie Condola Rashad a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play in 2009. Viola Davis won the Drama Desk for Outstanding Actress in a Play for Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, about a seamstress in 1905 who sews intimate apparel for a wide range of clients.

Nottage is back with Sweat, a critically acclaimed work that premiered last summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is now running at the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The Root caught up with the Brooklyn, N.Y., native to discuss why she turned her attention to Reading, Pa., the once booming factory town where Sweat is set, to grapple with the contemporary issues of a challenging economy, the erosion of the middle class and the redefinition of the American dream, as well as the role that racial attitudes play during hard economic times.

The Root: What was it about Reading, Pa., that drew your attention so, especially since what they are going through is not that different from many other cities?

Lynn Nottage: I can tell you specifically just how I came to land in Reading. I was really interested in the way in which the economic stagnation and the economic downturn was affecting the American middle class and really reshaping kind of the notion of the American dream, and I began looking for a city that was relatively close to where I live, which is New York City, that was representative of what was happening in the country as a whole.

I happened upon an article in the New York Times which profiled Reading as the poorest city in America in the 2010 census, and I was really intrigued by the fact that the poorest city in America was not in the Mississippi Delta, or sort of what we considered to be the traditional Rust Belt, which is the Midwest, but of what we think of as the Northeast. So I was drawn to Reading for those reasons and also for its diversity; it’s more than 50 percent black female at this point.

TR: Before you found Reading specifically, had you already made up your mind that this was the kind of story you were going to tell?

LN: I didn’t know, if at all, what kind of story I was going to tell when I entered into Reading because I didn’t know what the story was prior to stepping into the city. I really came to Reading trying to figure out, well, what is this narrative, what is this new story that’s being woven? And I entered the city … with my eyes open and really invested in what people had to say, and not entering the city with any kind of preconceived notions. I wanted the city to tell its story to me, rather than me going in with a story that I would then impose on the city, and I ended up going back and forth between New York and Reading for two years. I began going in late 2011 and really sort of landed upon the story to tell about two years later.

TR: It seems Sweat is coming into greater prominence or awareness at a critical time in our nation.

LN: Which I don’t think is by accident. I think we were really aware of the fact that Sweat [would run] when we were ramping up for the election, and we very, very deliberately wanted to have Sweat be produced in Washington, D.C. It was really important to me. It was important to the director [Kate Whoriskey] that we … be part of this national conversation as the candidates are beginning to reach out to the American people.

TR: Backtrack a little bit and tell us what Sweat is about.

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