Lynn Nottage on Broadway Diversity, Viola Davis, and Why She Writes About Working People

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Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images

Lynn Nottage is finally getting her due on the main stage: For the first time in her career, the two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright has a show on Broadway. The work, Sweat, is an extensively researched look at Reading, Pennsylvania, which was once named the poorest city in America. Featuring a multiethnic ensemble cast, much of the play takes place in a local bar where workers at a steel mill decompress, and the timeline toggles between the George W. Bush election and the nearer past, just after the recent recession. Economic woes provide the background for a chain of events where the workers decide to strike and the company lays them off. The ideas are big, but Sweat is ultimately concerned with the drama of the community’s interpersonal relationships. After the Trump election, many called Sweat “prescient” for its understanding of working-class America and racial resentment. Ultimately what Nottage does with Sweat is remind America of what we had forgotten during the Obama years. In an extensive conversation, we discuss the two Americas, Viola Davis, and why she writes about working people.

You did extensive research where you talked to people who lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, for Sweat. Did you ever find it difficult to empathize with people during the interview process?
Yes. There are always moments where you bristle at the person that you’re interviewing. I remember there was one woman I interviewed who was just a gun-toting NRA supporter. We saw the world very differently. I did empathize with her in some ways because she was going through a hard time. I could join her where she was hurting, but it was more difficult for me to join her in the other aspects of her life.

All of the characters are stuck in this larger economic and political structure. You make glancing references to the election and NAFTA, for instance. How did you decide how much of that exists in the work?
Well I think because the play takes place in the recent history and we in America have incredibly short memories — it’s remarkable how short our memories are — I thought it was really important to give some context without that context being a part of the play. I wanted people to understand the environment that these people were making these decisions in and living their lives in without having to work that into the actual narrative. That’s why it’s the wallpaper. I imagine 15 years from now I want someone to be able to read the script and understand the context.

I think people forgot in the eight years under Bush that this country went through a complete financial collapse, and when Obama finally inherited the country it was on the verge of the Great Depression. We forget that. I thought it was really important to underline that in the course of telling this story.

Now we’re remembering.
We’re going to remember in six months, so I hope that people in the center of this country think, “Oh man, I fucking forgot those were some bad years!”

Something that I found funny was that a lot of people called Sweat very prescient. Did that strike you as an odd word to use?
The thing that surprised me is that so few people knew. My assumption was that everyone was tracking what was happening, and I was surprised by how myopic people who live in the urban bubbles are and were. That’s what shocked me. I just assumed that these things were known. In fact, there was a reporter from the Washington Post who saw it at Arena Stage and he said, “We’ve seen this play before. We know these characters. It’s a union play.” I wrote him a letter and I said, “No, this is not just a union play. Let me explain to you why this is different.” He ended up saying, “Yeah, you were right.” But I thought there was this resistance to really acknowledge what was happening not only by some of the mainstream media but some people who are engaging with art. That shocked me.

Why do you think they were so resistant?
I don’t know why there are things in this culture we refuse to talk about on a national scale. Racism is one of them. If we could really have an honest conversation in this culture, I think we’d be able to make headway. The fact is, the minute you bring up the conversation, everyone bristles like this and it gets shut down. I think that class and poverty occupy a very similar space, because the minute it’s raised people get very nervous and insecure. I also think that strangely in this country because we’re so aspirational none of us actually see ourselves as struggling. There’s this whole new generation that’s really spending beyond their means because no one wants to be associated with struggle or with poverty.

And they’re accumulating debt.
Credit-card debt, and they’re killing themselves. In the old days people worked really hard. You worked on a farm and you worked really hard and it was okay not to be wealthy but to make ends meet and to have your family be fed and to be comfortable. That’s not enough anymore.

Lauren Berlant has called this “cruel optimism,” which is this attachment to the things that are actually detrimental to our well-being.
They are. It’s in the play. One of the characters, Stan, he says two things that always resonate with me: “Nostalgia is a disease.” Also, he mentions that we get attached to things and those things come to define us. Sometimes it’s as easy as letting go of those things that liberates us. But we want a home, and then we want to fill that home with lots of expensive things and clutter and then we become trapped by that stuff, rather than being much more agile because we carry everything we need in our backpack.

When you’re choosing what stories to tell, I’m interested in how your gaze moves: you move away from the center of power. Do you see your work as doing a kind of historical recovery?
Absolutely. I look back at history — particularly the history of the United States — and for so long I saw these huge empty spaces in which I know my narrative existed. I think that you talk about reclamation, it’s one of the things where I want to reclaim my own history as part of American history and assert my presence. I know that my ancestors were there, and I know that my ancestors were instrumental in constructing what we consider to be the American narrative, but somehow those chapters are missing. I feel that as a literary person and as a playwright I’m hoping to write some of those chapters.

How do you feel like labor exists in your work? There’s a lot of manual labor, like with George making the Panama Canal and Esther making clothes in Intimate Apparel, but there’s a lot of emotional labor that women do for men, and black women do for white women.
I’m interested in the notion of working and how that is in some ways very connected to our identity, and that a large swath of the country makes their living by their hands. Those are not stories that you often get to see on the stage, at least not in New York City. A lot of the stories that you see on the stage are about the people making policy or the people who have discovered something incredible. Very rarely do you see the trials and tribulations of the people who do very simple tasks who have these beautiful stories. I think that’s why I gravitate towards working people. It’s also because I come from a long tradition of working people. Both of my grandmothers had at some point worked as domestics. My one grandmother eventually in her 50s got her nursing license and became a nurse at Harlem Hospital. My other grandmother, I got to see her graduate from college. The way in which they survived was as domestics. My grandfather was a Pullman porter and my father put his way through college by cleaning floors at night in the libraries. I understand that working people are in some way the bedrock of my existence and the existence of many people here.

Yes, and I think the foundation on which everything is built.
Yes! Everything is built on that! That’s why. We forget. It’s like Oscar [from Sweat] who is in some ways at the center of the play because he has more stage time than anyone, but he’s the character who’s working the hardest because he’s always working. While everyone else is talking he’s the one who’s working, but he’s invisible.

He is so present, but he doesn’t speak.
He doesn’t speak, but he’s always working. He’s taking the gum off, or he’s behind the bar working. Every once in a while they’ll listen, but they’ll be like, “Can you cut a piece of cake, Oscar?” He’s serving everyone. He’s just working.

In your play Intimate Apparel, the main character Esther says, “That hardly seems like a life worthy of words.” I love that line because I thought about it in terms of what your play was doing: giving words and life to people who might have otherwise been forgotten.
With Intimate Apparel, that story really came alive for me when I realized that Esther is that woman who when you’re in an antique shop and you’re going through the photographs, you pick out [her photo]. She’s someone whose history is completely lost to us but [she’s] someone who obviously felt it was important enough for her to go down to a photo studio and have her photo taken. On some level she wants to be remembered. I feel like when I was writing the play I was remembering all of the Esthers who lived these very fully, rich, textured lives, touched many people, but who are forgotten.

How did that play start?
The genesis of that play was it came from a moment when my mother had died, from Lou Gehrig’s disease. It moved through her very quickly. One of the things that happened to her was she lost her ability to talk. I became hyperaware of the fact that I couldn’t ask her any questions. She was relatively young. I thought, “Oh my god, there are all these questions about my ancestors that we never got to you.” You always think you have more time. At the same moment that my mother lost her voice, my grandmother began to develop dementia and couldn’t answer those questions. In one fell swoop I had lost everyone in my family who could tell me about my history. That made me very sad. I found a picture when I was cleaning out my mother’s house of my grandmother’s mother and my grandmother. It was an old passport picture. I felt that I knew nothing about this woman. I knew she was a seamstress. I knew she had married a man from Panama. I knew she had come to New York at the turn of the century. Intimate Apparel became my own exercise in trying to discover my ancestors.

What do you see as the problem in terms of forging a collective will right now?
I think that in the moment we’re governed by someone who is really drawn to divisive language and is very invested in a divide-and-conquer theory in order to maintain and build his power. I think that as a result we see this huge rupture in our American narrative. People are on one of the two divides, and we really have no language to bridge the gap right now. I think a lot of people are not really interested in bridging that gap. They have one vision of America on their side and we have another vision of America. Our vision is what I think to be the essentially American vision, which is a country that continues to evolve. It’s a country of inclusion. It’s a country that’s continually looking for the next story rather than looking back at the story that’s already been told.

Were you surprised by Trump’s election?
Yes, I was absolutely surprised by his election because I could never anticipate that a reality star who is not a staggering intellect and who willfully resists reading books and learning and knowledge would become our commander-in-chief. I mean, how could anyone anticipate that? But I could predict that our country was going to sway in a direction that would make a lot of us uncomfortable, because I felt that rage. Yeah, when I was in Reading I felt like people wanted some form of revolution. And that has happened. I mean, what we have seen is a sort of mini-revolution.

Do you see your work as having a political ideology at all?
I wouldn’t say I see my work as having a political ideology. Lynn Nottage certainly has a political ideology. I think that the work is an extension of who I am, but I don’t think that when I write the play I’m looking to push the audience one way or another. I’m just asking them to have empathy for people who they may not necessarily engage with on a regular basis, to put themselves in another person’s shoes.

Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images

Why do you think it took so long to get one of your plays on Broadway?
I’m sort of philosophical about this. I feel like Sweat arrived on Broadway at the moment that it needed to. I feel like a commercial audience was not prepared for Ruined or Intimate Apparel, for many different reasons. I think that Sweat also looks very different than my other plays in that it’s an ensemble play, and it’s multicultural.

As opposed to having a black cast?
Having a black cast or having a black woman who is the protagonist. And I think that I will rejoice when there’s a play on Broadway in which the central character is a black woman who carries the play. I take that back: That was Eclipsed, Danai Gurira. That was great, that was wonderful.

How was working with Viola Davis for the first time on Intimate Apparel?
I mean, she’s just one of the great actresses working in America today — perhaps the greatest actress working on stage and in film today. She is someone who has an incredible work ethic, who surrenders all of herself to the part that she’s playing. Regardless of whether it’s glamorous or requires her, sort of, crawling in the mud, she’s gonna fully commit to bringing that character to life. And she also is really quick in the rehearsal room, assimilates notes faster than any actor I’ve ever encountered.

Has it been heartening to see her rise?
Yeah, because she was so driven, and I know, at least in the way in which she perceived it early on, that she had tremendous hurdles to overcome, and just to watch her knock down every barrier to become the star that she is, I think is phenomenal. And also to lean into her beauty in ways that I think she was more reluctant to do earlier in her career. I think now she plays glamorous women and fully embodies those glamorous women with her own glamour. Whereas I think before, she didn’t celebrate that part of herself. But then again perhaps the culture’s caught up with her and evolved to recognize her beauty.

I was thinking about her Emmys speech, where she said that it’s a lack of opportunity.
It is a lack of opportunity. There just weren’t that many roles, and the roles — like the role in The Help — would that be the ideal role that she would step into? Probably not, but it was a tremendous opportunity.

Have you felt that has been true in your career as a playwright?
Well, you know, it’s a little bit different because as writers, we create our own stories. But I think the difficulty was, certainly at some times, getting those stories onto the main stage. I mean, for a really, really long time, I remember having these bitch sessions with other women writers and other writers of color about how we’re stuck in developmental hell and reading hell, and then once we get out and we finally are onstage, we are relegated to the second stages, that we can’t get to the main stages. And I think to a certain extent, we’re still struggling with getting to those big stages, Off Broadway and Broadway. You know, the fact that I am the only living playwright of color who has a play produced that’s running right now, with the exception of Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s kind of … this is the 21st century and that there are only two plays written by women that are represented. There’s a third play that has a woman who’s a lyricist, but I find that those statistics are really just disappointing in this day and age. Because you look at the demographics of America: Why doesn’t the Broadway stage reflect those demographics?

Do you feel like there’s a barrier with the audience if the audience is predominately white watching your works?
Well, I think it’s true that whenever you go into theater, you respond to something that feels closest to your own narrative. I think that’s just natural for all of us. And unfortunately, as people of color, we’ve had to watch white narratives for so long that we can engage with them on some level, but I think for a white audience, it’s more difficult for them to see the universality of narratives written by people of color. Which I don’t understand, but I think it’s true. I went to this lecture years and years ago, it was an African-American woman who was studying racism, but was doing it scientifically. And so she hooked people up to machines to measure brain patterns, and one of the things that she measured is, when people encounter difference, how does it change their brain chemistry? And actually, there was a tangible shift in the brain chemistry when people encounter difference. And I think that’s certainly true in the audience: When people see someone onstage who’s different than they are, it’s gonna take a moment certainly.

What are you working on next?
I’m continuing to do Intimate Apparel: The Opera with the composer Ricky Ian Gordon. That was a commission from the Met and the Lincoln Center Theater. We’re just about finished, and I think it’s beautiful. But the two of us, we listen to the music, and we’re just like, ‘We love opera so much,’ and we’re like, ‘No one else is gonna like it, but we love it.’ We do. Knock on wood. It’s different because it’s a ragtime opera. And it feels very American and very accessible because a lot of contemporary opera is atonal. This has beautiful melodies and songs that you can sing, kind of like the Italian opera used to have, where there’s music you can leave humming. And then, the big thing is this performance installation that we’re working on in Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s not about Sweat, it’s completely different. It comes out of the research that I did for Sweat, but we wanted to build something in Reading that’s gonna put all the people in that community, that’s so fractured, into dialogue. And also to tell the story of the city because I think that people all have a very different sense of what that city is; there are people who sort of cling to old Reading, and there are people who are really trying to invent Reading, and it would be lovely to understand, what is the narrative of this city that’s evolving, and so we’re going to attempt to tell that story in a space through multimedia.

I didn’t want to feel like a carpetbagger, and I formed a lot of attachments to that city. And I’m really deeply invested in seeing that city heal and thrive because I feel at the core that if that city doesn’t make it, then America doesn’t make it. And so I want this city to make it. It has to resurrect itself. And it is, bit by bit, finding itself and finding its narrative.

How do you feel hope functions in your work?
Well I’m an eternal optimist, so I don’t want to surrender to the darkness. I think that human beings were incredibly resilient, otherwise we wouldn’t keep going. I think when we talk about Sweat, there was someone who said after seeing it in Reading — which I think is really beautiful — that he tracked the story through the character of Stan the bartender. He said that Stan is Reading, Pennsylvania. I said, “Why?” He said, “Reading got a little beat up at the beginning, but continued to work and welcome people and be protective of itself.” Reading took a beating, but then at the end you have a man who has been crippled but still has the will to work. You put that sponge in his hand, he’s going to do the only thing he knows how to do, which is to work and to move forward. I think built into that is the optimism. We can get dinged and battered and bruised but we still have the will to rise. I think it’s true of Oscar as well. These are two characters who take a beating but are not beaten. It’s essentially American. It’s a part of our mythology.

Lynn Nottage on Why She Writes About Working People