And may I work this mill just as long as I am able,
And never meet the man whose name is on the label.
— James Taylor, “Millworker”
In 2008, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival launched American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, a multi-decade program that works to dramatize untold stories from the annals of American history. Lynn Nottage, fresh off her first Pulitzer Prize, was commissioned by the festival in 2014 to lend her voice to the series. After considering several disparate historical moments to write about, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, she made the somewhat surprising decision to examine what she called the “de-industrial revolution.”
The first seeds of Sweat were planted in 2011. Late one night, Nottage received an email from an old friend who told her she was broke. “She was having a very difficult time making ends meet and had reached a level of desperation,” she recalled in a 2014 interview. Her friend wasn’t asking for money; she just needed “a shoulder to lean on.” Nottage was shaken to her core, saying it made her realize “that probably most of us are living two to three doors away from someone who is either in poverty or on the verge of poverty.” Shortly after, Nottage and her friend marched in the Occupy Wall Street movement. She began seriously examining the ways that our cultural narratives of the American Dream were crumbling in the face of economic disparity. This led her to Reading, Pennsylvania.
Just over three hours from New York City, Reading is one of the poorest cities in America. Nottage spent roughly two-and-a-half years interviewing the people of Reading, drawing inspiration for the play from the community’s real stories. “What surprised me was my ability to empathize with people who I always thought were on the ‘other side’ of the divide,” she said in a 2018 interview. “I sat in rooms with middle-aged white men and heard them speaking like young Black men in America — they feel disenfranchised, disaffected.”
That white disenfranchisement would become a frequent talking point in the political discourse of the years that followed Sweat’s premiere: the play opened in New York at the Public Theatre just days before the 2016 presidential election. With its depiction, of the tension between working-class white people, Black people working for upward mobility, and a Latino community facing increasing vilification from white supremacists, Sweat may just be one of the key theatrical works of the Trump era.
Director Zach Stolz has described Sweat — which pointedly takes place in 2000 and 2008, two watershed election years — as “one of the most political non-political plays.” The characters in the play don’t shy away from talking about issues that might as well be pulled from the platform of a modern political campaign: racism, immigration, de-industrialization, financial inequality.
That doesn’t mean the play is didactic, though: Nottage is careful to keep her focus on the human element. Sweat is a play about community. Its characters are barflies who unwind after a hard day’s work at a physically and mentally taxing job by sipping a beer and spinning stories with old friends until the early hours of the morning. It’s the story of a community split apart by the pressures of a society that’s always been rigged against them. Sweat is politically engaged, but at its core, it’s a human tragedy.
The America of 2022 is dramatically different from the America of 2016 or 2008 or 2000, but like all the best tragedies, Sweat encourages its audience to lean in, to cry, to rage, to see themselves. In a time where it seems easier than ever to feel detached from others, this play reminds us the importance of community. In the face of injustice, an ever-widening wage gap, a pandemic — we need to look out for each other. Solidarity is revolutionary; community is natural. As one character says at the end of the play, “That’s how it oughta be.”