Written for The Argo by Victoria Orlowski
This past week, the PAPPAS Visiting Scholar Series hosted Lynn Nottage, an academic and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who penned Stockton’s freshman seminar play, Sweat.
Lynn Nottage opened her speech by discussing why she writes. “Often my art has been defined by the struggle to be heard. To give voice to those who’ve been marginalized by circumstance. And despite my success, that impulse still feels as urgent today as it did when I began writing,” she said.
She continued by describing the diverse relationships and experiences that have contributed to her voice as a writer. “My reality is I am a black woman. I am married to a Romanian Jewish man. I’m raising a son who was adopted from Ethiopia. And I just helped my biracial daughter move into an apartment with her partner, who is a transgender woman from Oakland, California. My brother is a successful lawyer who is married to an English working-class woman who never went to college. My father-in-law is a queer Buddhist whose boyfriend is Mexican. My sister-in-law is a clinical psychologist married to a Native American fight choreographer. And my father, who recently died, was an atheist who listened very loudly to gospel music on Sundays. Needless to say, my experience is very complicated and diverse and doesn’t always adhere to traditional paradigms. As such I’m really interested in creating theater that explores the cultural tensions inherent in being this black woman, living in this multicultural society that is still struggling very much with the painful legacy of racism and sexism,” said Nottage.
When discussing Sweat, Nottage told her audience that she based the play on the stories of striking factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Reading was once a successful town where a person could stand on the corner of the street and have a well-paying job in a matter of moments. But in the present day, loyal employees are discarded and locked out of the factories where they make a living. The question of how the city collapsed is one that Nottage attempts to answer through Sweat by exploring racial divides and economic despair among the factory workers. She mentions how, in interviews conducted with residents, they always spoke in the past tense. For Nottage, “a city that couldn’t imagine itself in present tense or even in future tense was a city that had completely lost its narrative.”
Nottage embarked on a ten-year journey to help Reading find its voice again after being rejected by the very corporations that they supported. The performance of Sweat was part of a media installation titled #thisisreading, which was intended to put the spotlight on the circumstances plaguing these factory workers. Moreover, it was a presentation that this was not an isolated incident but a microcosm of greater problems in America. In the moderated interview hosted after, she elaborated more on how her fictionalized plays are based on real events and their underlying conflicts. In the case of Reading, the dominance of white nationalism and corporate greed are the main conflicts. Her works are meant to make audiences think critically about these issues and how they impact Americans, which is critical considering the upcoming election.
On a lighter note, when asked what she was working on currently, Nottage revealed, “I have a really exciting project. It’s the adaptation of the Imitation of Life with composer John Legend. So, I get to wake up every single morning to songs sung by John Legend.”
Students interested in attending more speaker events can keep an eye on OspreyHub for information on future speakers.