Reached by phone Monday after earning the Pulitzer Prize for drama, “Sweat” playwright Lynn Nottage was clear on exactly whom she was representing with the win.
“No. 1, I’m representing for women, and No. 2, I’m representing for playwrights of color,” said Nottage, whose “Sweat” won acclaim as a thoughtful examination of the working-class anger that led to the election of President Trump.
The Pulitzer jury characterized the work as “a nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream.”
For Nottage, an associate professor of theater at Columbia University, the win Monday marked her second Pulitzer. In 2009 she won for her play “Ruined.”
“Winning the second Pulitzer firmly places me in conversation with this culture,” Nottage said.
“Sweat” has its origins in the Occupy Wall Street movement that sprang to life in New York City in 2011. Nottage became intrigued by the story of the 99% calling the status of the 1% into question, and she went in search of a place that she felt was representative of the culture as a whole.
She found that place in Reading, Pa., a manufacturing town that has suffered from the effects of globalization, and “Sweat” was born out of Nottage’s intensive interviews with residents. The play mostly takes place in a blue-collar bar in 2000 when the effects of NAFTA are beginning to take hold. It jumps to 2008, when the economic crash delivers a body blow.
“In part the success of the play has been that even though it’s happening in 2000, it’s still very much about America today,” said Nottage, although she added that nobody could predict the groundswell of angst that came to play during the 2016 presidential election.
“I don’t think any of us could predict Trump. Trump is the stuff of nightmares,” Nottage said. “But in talking to people, I knew there was a tremendous level of disaffection and anger and sorrow. I know people felt misrepresented and voiceless.”
“Sweat,” directed by Kate Whoriskey, first appeared at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in 2015. It premiered off-Broadway at the Public Theater in October 2016, and it began previews at Studio 54 on Broadway last month.
In his review of “Sweat” at the Public, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty noted: “Nottage isn't simply writing to explain the behavior of a certain segment of Donald Trump voters. She's analyzing the way economic pressures and changing demographics have, as this election has dismayingly shown us, pitted communities against one another.”
Nottage said she wrote the play to build bridges and an environment of empathy. She has been working on a multimedia art installation to be unveiled in July in the long-abandoned Franklin Street Railroad Station in Reading. “This Is Reading” weaves individual stories into a cohesive tale of the city.
The Pulitzer finalists in the drama category were “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe, which used a girls high school soccer team as a springboard to examine the creation of identity; and “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” by Taylor Mac, who employed music to plumb the depths of racism, sexism and homophobia.
In the Pulitzer’s music category, Du Yun won for her opera “Angel’s Bone,” which premiered in January 2016 at the Prototype Festival, 3LD Art & Technology Center in New York. The Pulitzer jury described the piece as “a bold operatic work that integrates vocal and instrumental elements and a wide range of styles into a harrowing allegory for human trafficking in the modern world.”