By playwright Lynn Nottage
Several years ago I received a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write a play about an American Revolution; it was part of an ambitious initiative to encourage playwrights to wrestle with large questions about American history. I struggled for a couple of years, resisting the obvious temptations to write about the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement, and then late one night, I received an email in the form of a plea from a dear friend in dire financial straits. She was a single mother of two who had no motive, other than the need to share her predicament with close friends. It was a difficult task, but her raw honesty about her financial reality shatter me. For months she’d been hiding her circumstances from friends and family. I read her email and felt ashamed. She was my next-door neighbor, yet my eyes had been closed to her painful situation. My friend was someone who had an easy smile, which unbeknownst to me hid a hard reality familiar to too many Americans. She had worked for years, signed the American social contract and yet had, like many middle-class flox, found herself broke, desperate, and on the verge of despair. Her emotion email forced me to reckon with the reality that we all live within shouting distance of someone who is in crisis and experiencing real economic insecurity. I was awakened from my complacency, and my response was to ask hard questions about how and why this was happening in a country as wealthy as the United States.
The next day, my friend and I went to Occupy Wall Street (which was beginning that week). We march around Zuccotti Park, and chanted until we were hoarse. At the end of the day she felt better, and less alone, but I had more questions. As result, I ended up going back to Occupy Wall Street multiple times and speaking loudly at the people’s mic.
Around this time I decided to write about the American de-industrial revolution for the Oregon Shakespeare commission. My curiosity led me to Reading, Pennsylvania, a post-industrial city at the tail end of the Rust Belt. At the time, 2011, it was the poorest city of its size in America, and a microcosm of what was happening to small cities across the United States. Reading was once an industrial powerhouse: home to textile and steel factories, home to the first outlet malls in America, and the nexus of the Reading railroad.
In Reading, I spent two-and-a-half years interviewing people, from the city’s first African American Mayor to members of a homeless community squatting in the woods. Too often, I found that folx spoke of their city in the past tense; they’d respond to my questions with a simple rejoinder: ‘Reading was’. I recognized in hearing this over and over that a city that couldn’t imagine itself in the present or the future was a city that had lost its narrative. To me this was heartbreaking.
Still, I didn’t really find my play until I sat in a circle with a group of middle-aged White Steel workers who’d been locked out of their factory for ninety-three weeks. They’d worked for more than half of their lives in one place, and yet were forced out of their jobs by corporate greed and left with nothing. Their stories broke my heart and invited me to see the world from another’s perspective; to be moved by people who I would not ordinarily encounter. In that moment, I replaced judgment with curiosity and allowed myself to really listen and to hear what they had to say. Some of it was difficult, and as a Black woman from Brooklyn I hadn’t expected that I would be so profoundly moved by their predicament. But they were not only willing to share their stories, but they were open and brave enough to cry in front of me. I felt a responsibility to write a play that would capture the honesty and contradictions of this conversation; sustain the complexity our multicultural country in crisis, and reveal the ugly truths and ask the uncomfortable questions. I also recognized that there was a larger story about America that wasn’t being told in the mainstream media in 2014; a story that would reveal the level of disaffection, anger, shame, despair, racism and invisibility that I encountered in Reading, PA.
So, I wrote my play Sweat, which is about a close-knit group of steel workers who find themselves forced out of the steel factory where many of them have worked for over twenty-five years. Sweat examines how their economic hardships dangerously rupture their friendships along racial lines, destroying their community in the process. I was surprised that the play, which was written a couple of years before the 2016 Election, really struck a nerve and seemed to anticipate the unfortunate election of Donald Trump. When The New York Times asked how I foresaw with this play the rise of divisive, reactionary politics in America – a story that took most journalists in this country by surprise – my answer was simple: I showed up and listened.