Brow Beat

Lynn Nottage on Her Broadway-Bound Play, Sweat, and Why She’s Wary of “Poverty Porn”

Khris Davis and Will Pullen in Sweat at the Public Theater.

Joan Marcus

Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s latest play, Sweat, tells the story of nine residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, as they deal with the threatened closure of the steel plant where most of them work. Set in 2000 and 2008, Sweat explores the characters’ response to their changing fortunes. The play, which was first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and ran at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., can be seen at New York’s Public Theater through Dec. 18. The production will transfer to Broadway in the spring, with previews beginning at Studio 54 on March 4.

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I spoke with Nottage about her development process, the crisis of capitalism, and what Sweat has to say about Donald Trump.

How did you come to write a play about the closing of a steel plant in Reading, Pennsylvania?

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I received an email from a friend of mine—a single mother of two who lived a couple doors down from me. She said that she was completely broke and had been for some time and that when we saw her with a smile on her face, she was just putting [it on], and she was really in dire straits. We ended up going to Occupy Wall Street during the first week of that movement. At the end of the day, she said to me, “Nothing has changed, but I just feel a little better about my circumstances.”

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Then I became interested in what was happening on a larger scale, how poverty and economic stagnation was beginning to shift our American narrative. What I often do when I’m writing, if I can’t find that story, I go out and I hunt for it. That’s how I stumbled upon Reading, which, when I was beginning to cast my net for a small postindustrial city, was deemed the poorest city in America for its size, according to the Census. I ended up spending two-and-a-half years going back and forth, just listening to people, really being open.

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I sat in a circle with a group of, by and large, middle-aged white steelworkers who had been locked out of their plant for 93 weeks and were in an utter state of despair and frustration. We sat around and they told me their story, and for the first time, I felt a great deal of empathy for them. I found that the way in which they spoke was really familiar to me, as an African American woman who has struggled with marginalization throughout my entire life. For the first time, they were saying, “We feel unseen, unheard, frustrated.” At the end of the meeting, I said, “You guys sound like socialists.” People say it’s Trumpland, but I think that a lot of people I spoke with were more in line with Bernie Sanders than with Trump.

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Can you tell me a little bit about how you operated when you were in Reading?

I was there to listen and to exchange my experiences. I always begin with sharing a little bit about myself. This is who I am, this is the kind of artist I am, this is why I’m here—tell me a little bit about yourself. Unlike a lot of journalists who will go in, spend a couple hours and leave, I actually got to know people because I was going back and forth. I got to see them over the course of two years and see their evolution.

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I’m sure many journalists would like to spend more than a couple of hours, but you’ve got to produce copy. Even as a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, you don’t have unlimited resources.

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I didn’t have unlimited resources, but I see this as part of my creative process, an extension of my journey as an artist. I don’t see the two things as separate. I can’t explain it other than I just enjoy the process of getting to know people and getting to know a place that I’ve never been is entering into unfamiliar landscapes.

You’re not operating in the same way as a journalist.

No, and I don’t have the same responsibilities as a journalist.

If a journalist went there, and a person who they’d interviewed later thought, I don’t recognize myself in this person, that would be a problem. But I don’t know if it’s a problem for a playwright. Would you want the people that you actually spoke with to recognize themselves in Sweat?

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Because Sweat is not based on individuals but inspired by individuals, I think that they might recognize aspects of themselves. Some of the steelworkers who have come and seen the play have recognized things that they have said that have been interpreted. I appreciate when folks from Reading come and have some level of recognition.

The message of the play is that people, workers, deserve to be treated with dignity.

Yes.

Which is hard to argue with. But is it enough? Are there actions that the characters could have taken that would have saved their jobs?

Here’s the dilemma of the modern age: There used to be actions that workers could take, in the form of a strike. But now that’s being pre-empted by lockouts. They don’t even have that leverage to protect their jobs. That’s the tragedy of what’s happening today. Could they have taken action? Perhaps. But I know from the workers that I spoke to, they did take action and that action was met with a closed door

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Some of the characters feel powerless, and they strike out because of that feeling. Or they become paralyzed by their feeling of powerlessness.

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Yes.

Whereas, in fact, they’re not actually powerless. Is the play trying to show people what their power is?

They aren’t powerless, and I agree with that statement, but I think that what happens is that when people become desperate, they begin to cannibalize the people who are closest to them. An alternate title for the play could have been The Cannibals, in that rather than uniting as a group, what they choose to do is become even more fractured. And it’s in business’s interest to keep us fractured, to keep us nonaligned. Once working people discover that collectively we have more power than we do as individual silos—then we become an incredibly powerful force. But I think that there are powers that be that are invested in us remaining divided along racial lines, along economic lines. And so at the heart of my play, what I was looking at is the way in which economics fracture people along racial lines.

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Everyone is focusing on the white middle class, but you forget that it’s not just white people up on that stage. It’s not about white people. It’s about the way in which our culture, which is a multicultural culture, becomes fractured because of the way in which corporate greed chooses to divide us.

We’re in a moment when we feel the need to compare everything to what happened in the recent election, but Sweat does feel like it’s talking about the issues that apparently motivated some people to vote for Donald Trump: political alienation, feeling that no one is fighting for them or supporting them, that other people or groups are coming to take the little that you have. How does that interpretation strike you?

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I find it interesting, and I think it would be different if Bernie Sanders had won. The play is not about Donald Trump’s America. It just is not, and I want to be clear about that. I think that that’s one way for people who feel guilty for not being more alert interpret it. This play was written before Donald Trump was even on the landscape, and it takes place in 2000 and 2008. So to say that it’s about Donald Trump’s America is shortsighted.

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Or, as you say, a way of excusing—

Your own myopia.

In England, this kind of situation has often made its way into theater, most famously as musical treatments like The Full Monty or Billy Elliot or Kinky Boots. Yes, there’s something transporting about using self-expression as a way of dealing with terrible dislocation like losing your job or losing your trade, but after seeing Sweat, that approach feels naïve and maybe even insulting. Were you aware of the way that those productions have dealt with this kind of loss?

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I’m always hyperaware of the way in which working people are portrayed on the stage. The things that bother me are poverty porn, in which working people aren’t given three dimensions, because the majority of us in America, our roots are in the working class. The majority of the people who are in Sweat, standing on that stage—those actors—their roots are in the working class. They were very invested in the veracity of the characters. In this circumstance, I can’t imagine singing and dancing about it. [Laughs] I just can’t.

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Theater is a very inefficient medium: You have to gather people in a room at a specific time and place. What draws you to it?

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I don’t think that it’s the most inefficient. I think it’s the most efficient, in that once you have this collective audience, it’s easiest to build empathy. You dismiss the power of a collective experience. I think that in this fast-paced, disconnected culture, the one thing that can really still us and get us to sit down and listen is when we sit down in a theater. You have two hours to make either a persuasive argument or delight or titillate people in ways that you can’t do in any other medium. When I wrote the play Ruined, which was about rape in Congo, we had one evening with Ban Ki-moon and Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, and all of these people who had worked in Congo—and they said, “You know, we work every day on these issues, but we’re so disconnected from them in order to do it that when we sat down, we could actually be in the theater and release, and we could cry for the first time.” I think that’s why it’s deliberately dark, to allow us that personal experience. While we’re facing forward, people can’t see our faces, as we’re going through whatever it is that we’re going through.

There was lots of crying in the theater when I was there.

Before this election there was crying—a year and a half ago, when we first produced it. It helps them understand the anger, which I think some people were blind to.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

*Correction, Dec. 6, 2016: Due to an editing error, the title of this post originally misstated the title of Lynn Nottage’s play.

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