Insight Into Sweat: An Interview with Playwright Lynn Nottage

By Simon Hodgson

Playwright Lynn Nottage has always raised up the voices of the forgotten, the unsung, and the marginalized. Years before winning her second Pulitzer Prize for Sweat (her first was for Ruined in 2008), she worked for Amnesty International. We spoke with Nottage about her connection with steelworkers and the months she spent researching Sweat in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Playright Lynn Nottage. Photo by Lynn Savarese. Courtesy Lynn Nottage.

Which voices really resonated when you went to Reading?
What stood out in Reading was not the individual stories, but the collective story. These were, by and large, middle-aged white guys who had invested in the American Dream and had assumed they would work in their jobs until they were ready to retire, and have these fabulous pensions and health plans. They were broadsided when they woke up one morning to be told, “The life that you knew is no longer going to exist.” It forced them to rethink their identity and their relationship to the Horatio Alger myth [that hard work leads from rags to riches].

Your plays’ settings range from a 21st-century steel town to 18th-century Paris to 1930s Hollywood. What links your storytelling?
They’re all stories about people who are marginalized. People who are struggling with identity. People whose identities have been erased. They’re about working people who felt incredibly marginalized and unseen, and about how they can assert themselves in a landscape that refuses to recognize their dignity.

Like how Cynthia, Jessie, and Tracey from Sweat assert themselves in the male-dominated landscape of the steel industry.
There is this misunderstanding culturally that only men are steelworkers. There are a lot of women who are working in the steel industry. They may not be on the floor of the foundry but particularly in metal tubing plants, they’re packing tubes and they’re in other roles. I felt it was really important to show the full range of life on the floor.

What do you hope the Geary audience takes away from Sweat?
When I was done in Pennsylvania, one of my goals was to bridge a divide and get people to see that we all share one narrative. In Reading, you have people—all suffering in isolation—blaming each other, not recognizing that they share responsibility for the dismantling of the culture. At the end of the play, I didn’t want to draw any conclusions. I don’t think of myself as a moralizing playwright who wants the audience to leave with a specific lesson. What I do hope is that at the end, the audience will go off to some bar and enter into a robust conversation about the issues raised.

Sweat opens tomorrow and runs through October 21. Get your tickets here. And if you want to hear more from Lynn Nottage, find the extended interview in Words on Plays, available for purchase now.

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