The longer I am an active theatre artist, the rarer the opportunity becomes to first experience a playwright’s work onstage, rather than read their work first. Lynn Nottage is one of those household contemporary theatre names, and yet I had the fortune to watch her work on Broadway before every cracking open one of her scripts.
And let me tell you, Lynn Nottage’s most recent work, Sweat, made me profoundly uncomfortable in a way no other play I’ve seen ever has.
Sweat jumps between the years 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pennsylvania, a town nearly economically decimated by the closing and outsourcing of factories. Watching this play is like watching a beautifully orchestrated car crash. You know from the beginning that these characters don’t stand a chance in finding economic relief, and yet you can’t help but hold out hope that maybe, just maybe, somebody could get by unscathed.
And that’s exactly what happened to some of my own family members. This is what had me sweating.
Although I identify as a New Englander after living in the Boston area for the greater part of my young adulthood, my family was born and bred on steel and coal. My father was the first of his family to ever leave Pennsylvania.
My uncle has not held steady employment since around 2008, the same year Nottage chose to reveal the rubble of Reading, PA in her play. My aunt recently divorced my uncle after he was trying to liquidate his son’s college fund. Nottage identified traits of my uncle that I don’t normally have to look at in my east-coast academic lifestyle. And I think what made me sweat the most was the realization that my Broadway ticket is the equivalent to his week’s pay.
This was the first time a play has made me look at the underbelly of my upbringing. What made me the most uncomfortable is that I have absolutely no idea what to do in response to what I had seen onstage. The characters in Sweat
Essentially, what are my ethical responsibilities as a playwright if I choose to write about a living population that is barely scraping by? What am I supposed to when a piece of theatre has me sweating?