When Lynn Nottage was a girl, buses took day trippers from Port Authority in New York to Reading, Pennsylvania. ‘It was the first place where outlet malls were built in America,’ recalls the double-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, ‘and it was the centre of the textile industry. It was a destination.’
That was the ’70s. Decades on, Brooklyn-born Nottage’s familiarity with the blue-collar city was a factor in her choosing Reading as the subject for a commission to write a play about ‘an American revolution’.
The other factor was a grim statistic: the 2010 census rated Reading the poorest city in America. The revolution Nottage wanted to write about was the deindustrialisation of America (‘the Deindustrial Revolution’, she quips) and it would result in her masterpiece, ‘Sweat’. It won her that second Pulitzer and transferred to Broadway; now, its UK premiere is making the leap from the Donmar Warehouse to the West End after receiving the best reviews of 2018.
Centring on a trio of female friends working at a steel tubing plant, it is a phenomenal and disturbing piece of writing. It follows the tight-knit, multiracial group as they disintegrate into suspicion then out-and-out racism after Cynthia – who is black – wins a job on the factory’s management, just as the bosses are gearing up to inflict swingeing cuts. It is also a compassionate play that demonstrates empathy with characters based on steelworkers Nottage met some two years into her research process, when they were 92 weeks into a strike over pay cuts.
Nottage began researching ’Sweat’ in 2011, and it premiered in 2015. Nonetheless, its depiction of working-class, traditionally Democrat-leaning white workers suddenly embracing right-wing views as their world crumbles seems to predict the Trump presidency.
Nottage didn’t think Trump would win: ‘He’s a reality TV star – none of us thought he would be able to pull this trick off. He’s the ultimate con artist and huckster who struck at a vulnerable moment.’
However, she isn’t surprised at the increasing toxicity of US public discourse. ‘In Reading I spoke to white people who were for the first time experiencing a level of marginalisation that was unfamiliar. The term I keep using is “white panic”. For a really long time white people in America treated whiteness like a superpower. Now a lot of people have discovered that their powers are eroding and they have begun behaving in ways that are completely unacceptable and undemocratic.’
Like any great play, ‘Sweat’ does not feel bound to a time and place, and one reason Lynette Linton’s Donmar production hit home so forcefully is that it resonates with Brexit – perhaps not with the same racial dimension, but certainly as a story of how people’s politics change when their safety net is removed.
Nottage doesn’t regard a 2020 Democratic presidential win as a likely panacea for the woes of places like Reading, though she thinks a win for anybody with a higher empathy level than Trump’s would help. And that’s what ‘Sweat’ ultimately is: not so much a plea for empathy as an expression of it.
‘Each of these people had made an investment in the company they worked for,’ she says. ‘They had put their sweat, their effort in, for generations, and there was an assumption that it would be repaid. And that sweat was taken for granted.’
‘Sweat’ is at the Gielgud Theatre until Jul 20.