Reading, PA, But it could be anywhere: The Writing of Sweat

Reading, PA, But it could be anywhere: The Writing of Sweat

Playwrigh Lynn NottageFor two and a half years, playwright Lynn Nottage visited Reading, Pennsylvania (pronounced RED-ing) to sit down and listen to people’s stories. Drawn in by Reading’s designation as the poorest city in America for its size1, Nottage spent weeks talking to business owners, public officials, police chiefs, social workers, and more. Under commission by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Nottage knew she wanted to write a play about how poverty and economic stagnation were shifting the American narrative, but she didn’t yet know what story she’d be telling as she made her way to Reading for the first time in 2012. “I wanted to find out how this [economic collapse] could happen so quickly,” Nottage says,“And how [the closing of factories] could change America so absolutely that you have people stuck in the towns, trapped, simply because they don’t have enough money to move.”

Through Nottage’s conversations, she met a group of Reading steel workers who had been locked out of their steel plant. For years, management at their steel factory had refused to let them return to work, denying them of their wages in hopes that they would accept lower pay, cut benefits, and increased work days. Meeting the locked out steel workers clarified a lot for Nottage. “I found that their story was incredibly compelling and representative of a lot of what I was hearing from other people,” Nottage recalls. “They had been solidly middle class and then had found that the rug was really pulled out from under them.”

One of the people that had the rug pulled out from under them is Dean Showers, a locked out union leader Nottage spoke with. Showers had worked at the steel tubing plant for 38 years, and at the time he spoke with Nottage, he and approximately 50 other workers had been locked out of their plant for almost five years. Showers had started working in the steel tubing plant when he was 18, had gone to college, dropped out, and was now locked out of a job at 62. “I was making really great money for a single, young teenager who didn’t know what he wanted to do,” says Showers, “There’s a lot of regret to that.”

That said, there is no character named Dean Showers in the play Nottage wrote. As she says, “the characters [in Sweat] are purely fiction — they’re inspired by people I met — which I think gave me a certain amount of leeway [to tell a more theatrical story] that I wouldn’t have had otherwise were it a verbatim piece.”Sweat feels like it’s accessing a deep, often untapped vein in the greater American story that isn’t limited to just Reading. Nottage herself acknowledges that the play tells a story that could be taking place in “any postindustrial city across the landscape.”

Watching this play in Massachusetts recalls the closing of General Motors’ Framingham Assembly in February of 1989, a shutdown that put 2,100 people out of work and transformed a community. It was an early but painful chapter in the “de-industrial revolution,” as Nottage has begun calling the widespread collapse of American manufacturing and the American dream for factory workers. But Nottage’s desire in writing Sweat was not only to explore this profound change in how Americans live and work, but also to help Americans understand each other better. “My real hope is that after an audience sees the play that they’ll want to sit down and talk to someone who they’ve never had a conversation with before,”says Nottage, “I hope that they will ask really tough conversations not just of themselves but of the legislators and the people who are in power. You know, I also hope that they will understand the power of art and be more willing to engage with storytelling.”

— J. Sebastián Alberdi

1 according to the 2011 census. In more recent censuses, Reading has stayed in the top three poorest cities of its size.

Reading, PA

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