In a blue-collar bar in Reading, Pa., a onetime factory worker contemplates the news that management has locked out his former union colleagues.
“One day life is good, the next you’re treading water,” he says. “That’s not supposed to happen to folks like us.”
Solid job, dependable middle-class life — that’s all being pulled from the grasp of the workers depicted in “Sweat,” a play that Lynn Nottage wrote after 2½ years of interviewing Reading residents in the early 2010s.
“It’s what I call the de-industrial revolution,” Nottage, a Pulitzer winner and onetime MacArthur grant recipient, says of what’s been taking place in towns like Reading, “shifting from a manufacturing base to a more service-oriented, white-collar workforce. All of those people invested in those manufacturing jobs found themselves completely upended.
“When you rip that out from under the country, how do we redefine ourselves?”
A hard-hitting drama that unfolds like a mystery-thriller, “Sweat” opens Nov. 3 at the Public Theater in New York after presentations by its commissioning companies, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland last summer and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., early this year.
The play has already won a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an international award given annually to a female playwright. Now, with the additional media and theater-world attention that come with a New York production, “Sweat” is poised to speak more forcefully in the national conversation.
“We have got so few three-dimensional representations of the contemporary American working class in any of our media,” says the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis. “It’s a story we desperately need to hear right now.”
Bill Rauch, Oregon Shakespeare’s artistic director, marvels at the play’s evocation of “so much of the anger and pain and fear that we’ve seen in this election cycle. … I really feel it’s prophetic.”
We have got so few three-dimensional representations of the contemporary American working class in any of our media.
Reading became known as America’s poorest city when census data from 2010 revealed its population of 88,000 to have the largest percentage living in poverty: 41.3%. In that city of textile mills and auto-related industries, dependable employment evaporated as factories thinned production, moved to other countries or to right-to-work states, or closed. Then came the 2008 financial crisis.
During periodic visits there in 2012-14, Nottage interviewed about 100 people with teams of two to five assistants.
Talking by phone from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nottage recalls: “What I heard repeatedly, regardless of race or class, was that people felt a sense of being trapped and isolated. The city had lost its tax base, and they could feel the city decaying and crumbling around them.
“With white people, I heard a lot of nostalgia in their voices. ... People always spoke of their city in past tense, never in present or future tense. That’s the thing that made me sit up and pay attention, because people who can’t imagine their city in present tense are already in trouble.”
Director Kate Whoriskey, who sometimes visited Reading with Nottage’s team, said: “It felt like there were ghosts everywhere.
“Wherever you went, there was a sign of something that once was alive and functioning and then collapsed.”
Nottage, 52, says her goal as a writer is to shine light on “spaces that are under-illuminated.” Her drama “Ruined,” which emerged from interviews with Congolese female survivors of wartime rape, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and 2003’s “Intimate Apparel,” inspired by her great-grandmother’s life as a seamstress, remains one of the most-produced plays in America.
The inspiration for “Sweat,” she says, came in 2011. “I got an email from a friend who lives a couple of doors down from me essentially saying that she was broke and hadn’t told anyone ... but she was hurting inside and could no longer withhold that information from her nearest and dearest.
“It broke my heart.”
It also got her thinking about living “so close to poverty on a day-to-day basis without recognizing it.” The nascent Occupy Wall Street movement reinforced her realization that this was a widespread issue. “I felt I needed to have a greater understanding of what was happening.”
A New York Times story alerted Nottage to Reading, which, like the email, located America’s poverty spiral much closer to her than she’d realized.
She and her team talked “to everyone who would speak with us”: workers, business people, schoolteachers, social workers, parole officers, the homeless.
While listening to members of Reading’s historically white labor population, Nottage, who is African American, heard something almost eerily familiar. “The language they were using sounded very familiar to me, language that for 100 years or more African Americans have been using to describe our circumstances. ‘We feel marginalized,’ ‘We feel unheard.’ ‘We feel disenfranchised.’ It’s something I hadn’t anticipated hearing, ever, from middle-aged white men,” Nottage says. “I felt for the first time we all shared a narrative.”
The play that resulted is not documentary, but fiction. “I like to go into a space, listen, absorb and then interpret,” Nottage says.
The first scene eavesdrops on probation check-ins by two young men, one white, impenetrable and bearing white-power tattoos, the other African American, introspective and restlessly intelligent. It’s clear right away that the men were involved in some terrible event, but what happened to so thoroughly knock their lives off-course won’t be revealed until the tension has been ratcheted many more notches.
It’s something I hadn’t anticipated hearing, ever, from middle-aged white men. I felt for the first time we all shared a narrative.
From the first moments, which take place in 2008, the story reverts to 2000 and a neighborhood bar where three female factory workers, including the young men’s mothers, regularly retreat to blow off steam and gripe about the plant.
Over time, the plant rumors turn alarming. Then, one weekend, half the machines are surreptitiously removed. Management presses for pay cuts and benefits concessions. When these are rejected, the plant’s union workers are locked out and nonunion replacements brought in at lower wages.
These developments echo a situation that Nottage happened upon in Reading: A maker of steel tubing had locked out its union workers.
Dean Showers worked at that plant and still serves as president of the United Steelworkers, Local 6996. Nottage interviewed him and some of his colleagues, and he saw the finished play in D.C.
He says that “Sweat” mirrors a lot of what the locked-out workers are going through, so “it’s a pretty mixed-emotion bag for me.”
“I walked out of high school without a real plan, and I could have went anywhere to work,” the 62-year-old says. “I applied at three really good places to work, where the workers made really good money, all manufacturing facilities, and I was offered employment at all three.
“It’s much different today. … Capital is global; corporations chase capital around the world.”
After more than 5½ years, Showers and his union colleagues at the plant are still locked out.
“If I’d allow myself, I could get angry,” Showers says, “but I don’t. I get up every day and I just see flashes of light that people are starting to get it.”
In “Sweat,” though, Nottage acknowledges anger. An African American factory worker describes a heated exchange in which he’s been accused of taking jobs from white people. Shortly after, the bar’s busboy, who’s of Colombian heritage, is warned away from a factory.
“When you’re fighting for an increasingly smaller portion of the pie,” Nottage says, “you turn against each other, you create reasons to hate each other.”
And that leads to the terrible event at the crux of the story. “There’s no one in that play who isn’t somehow responsible,” Nottage says. “Everyone is complicit.”
Patricia C. Giles, executive vice president and chief impact officer for United Way of Berks County, Pa., feels “Sweat” quite accurately captures Reading, but: “I can’t say I walked out of the performance feeling upbeat. Intentionally, it leaves the story without an ending and causes you to reflect on what happens in the future to those characters.”
In Reading too, “it’s still an unanswered question,” says Giles, but “this is a community that in general has an optimistic perspective.” The poverty rate has improved a bit: It’s down to 38.8% in the most recent census statistics.
Nottage is at work on another play about Reading, “with, at this point, just one character that overlaps.”
Meanwhile, she’s watching “Sweat” head off into the world for what she hopes will be an active life.
“I would love for the play to travel around the country; I would love to have conversations with people afterward.
“Where do we go from here? All of us are in pain. All of us feel a certain level of trauma. Are we going to remain divided? Or are we going to try to come together and heal?”