‘Racism Is a Soft Target’: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright Lynn Nottage on the Prescient Moment That Became Sweat

Lynn Nottage speaks on stage during 32nd Annual Lucille Lortel Awards at NYU Skirball Center on May 7, 2017 in New York City.
Photo: Monica Schipper (Getty Images for Lucille Lortel Awards)

With the endless amount of political rhetoric currently in our orbit, it’s often easy to forget about the people behind it—not just the politicians themselves, but the countless people whose fears make their power possible. It’s the grim reality we faced in 2016 when fear became the battle cry fueling the ascendancy to the presidency.

For playwright Lynn Nottage, there was the recognition of long-held frustrations coming to nationwide fruition. Just a few years before, she’d seen that fear up close as she interviewed members of the declining working and middle class in Redding, Pa., where she spent two-and-a-half years researching what would become her 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Sweat.

“It’s so interesting, because at the moment that I was writing the play, we still had Obama in office, and so there was a much greater sense of optimism, and a sense that there was going to be evolution in the culture, and that some of the rifts that I was writing about in 2008 were going to be repaired,” Nottage explains to The Root. “And yet, here we are, a much more fractured and divided culture than we could’ve imagined four or five years ago.”

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Now in production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre under the direction of veteran actor-director Ron O.J. Parson, Sweat centers the voices of those most affected by the decline of American-based big industry, the workers themselves. And with intimate insight, Nottage taps into the desperation that drives division, even in the midst of common suffering.

“You know, the thing that I think that the play speaks to is that when a culture or community is undergoing some sort of economic hardship or major disruption, what inevitably happens is that people turn on each other,” she says. “And I think that racism is a really easy soft target for folks. They retreat [from] those who are different, they retreat [from] those they feel threatened by. And in America, traditionally, the divide has been very binary—it’s been black and white. And now, it’s becoming much more complicated with the influx of immigrants, and so, we’re seeing that now the new target is immigration.”

Nottage is keenly aware of how shifting circumstances and demographics affect collective consciousness. For the past 20 years, the playwright and her family have lived in her childhood home in Brooklyn, N.Y., in an increasingly affluent neighborhood which itself tells the story of how the disenfranchised are frequently displaced.

“It’s really interesting to be re-immersed in a neighborhood which I grew up in, which was very different than it is now,” she says. “When I was growing up, it was this incredibly multicultural community that was economically and racially diverse—I always described it as ‘the community between communities.’ It was the place where people who were marginalized and pushed out of other communities found refuge on the way to upward mobility. It was not an affluent neighborhood,” she continues. “And so, it’s an interesting contrast, to have not moved, but have the world move around you.”

As gentrification reaches more and more urban areas, it’s not an uncommon story, but one that provides greater context on Nottage’s perspective. A former national press secretary for Amnesty International and the daughter of an activist and feminist mother who “never saw a picket line she didn’t want to stand on,” Nottage’s work is deeply informed by issues of social justice, whether it be the plight of factory workers unceremoniously shut out from much-needed jobs or advocating for working playwright parents like herself, struggling to find the space they need to create.

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“I draw inspiration from the environments of my encounters and the things that I read on a regular basis,” she tells us. “We live in a culture right now where we’re so bombarded with information, and I think part of the way that I’m writing now is trying to distill all of that information and make sense of it in a way that’s cohesive and compelling. In particular, I think that’s what Sweat came out of; sort of the chaos that was happening, and trying to distill it and understand it on a fundamental level.”

Now one of the most prominent playwrights of her (or any) generation—having won the first of her two Pulitzers in 2009 for Ruined—Nottage is fully aware of what her presence as a woman of color means in that space. In particular, she recognizes the inherent expectation of black playwrights to speak on issues of race and culture.

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“As a black playwright, I don’t feel that I necessarily have to address those issues,” she explains. “But as the playwright who I am, I feel that I do. I don’t feel that necessarily all black playwrights need to take on different social and political aspects of this culture—I think that I actually enjoy seeing black playwrights who choose to write about love and other things. But inevitably, I’m going to lean into some of the harder issues.”

Leaning into harder issues is a legacy that Nottage traces back to the abolitionist theater, as the dramatized stories of escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass, William and Ellen Craft, William Wells Brown and Henry “Box” Brown became vehicles for spreading the word about social ills to entertainment-loving audiences.

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“When we think about the beginnings of American theater, I would like to think that that’s the very beginning,” she notes, “and I don’t think people make that connection.”

Our unique history in America informs much of Nottage’s work as well. Her award-winning play Intimate Apparel tells the story of a black seamstress at the turn of the last century and is now being refashioned as an opera. Similarly, she is now expanding the range of her medium, collaborating on a musical adaptation of the bestselling novel and subsequent historical film, The Secret Life of Bees.

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Nottage says it was “the collision of many moments” that pushed her toward the medium of playwriting.

“I think it’s wanting to be a storyteller [and] wanting to be in conversation with community,” she says, going on to explain that while she’s not a performer, “I think it’s enjoying—on some level, being an entertainer ... I can hide behind the voices of other people and say what I want through metaphor.”

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And after years of rising through the theatrical ranks without much in the way of mentorship from other black women writers, Nottage tells us that what thrills her now is the rising chorus of black women now creating a diverse landscape of stories to add to her own.

“Years ago, there was much more of an urgency to assert my voice, because I felt more isolated in my desire to amplify the voices of women of color,” she says. “But now, suddenly, we’re in a moment in which you have Shonda Rhimes, and Ava DuVernay, and Danai Gurira, and Katori Hall, and Dominique Morisseau—you know, this insurgent group of African women who are writing these complicated, beautiful, Afrocentric plays. I no longer feel that I need to carry the burden of storytelling by myself, which is kind of beautiful. ... I feel like I’m in really good company right now. And so it feels kind of like a renaissance in writing—in African-American writing, in particular. I just feel proud to be part of this community.”

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Sweat is in production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre through April 14. Tickets are available on their website.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.