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.
LN: The play looks at a group of friends in 2000 who, over the course of years, are slowly being locked out of a factory where some of them [worked] for over 20 years. … It is really examining how their friendships fracture and unravel when their economic situations [are] radically changed almost overnight, and I think that that’s a reality that a lot of Americans are facing. We have this crumbling middle class who, for many years, made up the majority, but somehow their presence is being ignored and they’ve become increasingly voiceless.
These people who invested in the American dream, who worked for many years, suddenly feel like they’ve been rendered invisible, that they are not seen because they don’t live in an iconic city, because they’re no longer part of a powerful tax base; therefore they can be ignored. I really wanted those folks to be part of the national conversation. We even see it right now where the Republicans are focusing their base. They are looking at terrorism and immigration, and granted, those are very important issues, but what they’re neglecting is what I believe is one of the great tragedies in America, which is the erosion of the middle class and the loss of jobs and poverty.
TR: Many of us think of factory workers as more working-class than middle-class.
LN: But the factory workers are middle-class. You look at the steelworkers and the textile workers—those are the folks who, at the height of industrial America, were making incredibly competitive salaries. I mean, some factory workers making, in Detroit, anywhere between from $25 to $45 an hour, which I think puts people solidly in the middle class.
TR: In our current culture, especially on television and in film, the emphasis appears to be on characters that are extremely more professional, decidedly more upwardly mobile, but there was a time in popular culture when the workers you feature in your play were way more prominent in these mediums than they are now.
LN: I think there was a time when you could get a solid job in a factory. That was an accomplishment because you knew you were getting a job in which you were paid a livable wage, you would have guaranteed vacation time, you would have a medical package and you would have a retirement package; and that, to me, to many people, was sort of a victory. But what’s happening now is, all of those things that I just listed are being removed from the equation. The factory is trying to withdraw their benefits packages. They are asking people to work longer hours for less pay, so those jobs that used to be prized jobs 10, 15, 20, 25 years ago are disappearing because people can’t afford to do that and make a living wage.
TR: Talk about what Cynthia represents, because her ascension to management directly speaks to this inaccurate assumption, expressed by people like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, that affirmative action puts people like Cynthia in positions they are not qualified for and have not earned.
LN: I think she is a very interesting character because at the beginning of the play you have three women who are middle-aged who have been toiling on the plant floor for 20 years, and what we discover is that Cynthia has greater aspirations when there’s an opportunity to become management. She is also the one African-American woman in this circle of friends, and we watch that friendship erode when she is doubly promoted and they resent the fact that an African-American woman has been promoted over them. The white women resent the fact.
So the play is also dealing with racial realities and when we go through economic tough times … that the culture becomes not just economically stratified but also racially stratified, and people look for folks to scapegoat. And the people who end up being scapegoated, regardless of whether they’re management or whether they’re laborers, inevitably are minorities. So, in a sense, Cynthia is labeled as the bad guy because she has chosen to become management. And what the white women don’t understand is that she has worked incredibly hard to get off the floor, and she has seized an opportunity that she feels she was worthy of … which they don’t feel she was worthy of.
Editor’s note: Catch Sweat in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., until Feb. 21.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.