New York playwright Lynn Nottage spent two years researching and talking to people in Reading, Pennsylvania. for “Sweat”, her gripping drama about displaced steel workers grappling with their futures.
In April, Nottage won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for “Sweat.” And on Sunday, the play will be up for three Tony awards, including best drama.
Nottage was intrigued when she read that Reading, a city of almost 90,000, located in Berks County, ranked as the poorest city of its size in the nation, according to the 2010 census. More than half of Reading’s residents are Latino immigrants, and only 8 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree, well below the national average of 28 percent.
Reading, she said, is representative of what’s happening to the country as a whole, particularly to post-industrial rust belt cities that previous enjoyed robust economies before the manufacturing jobs disappeared in the 90’s.
“A lot of times the people didn’t leave, but the jobs left,” Nottage said. “Reading really touched my heart when I first started going because I found a city that is quite beautiful. It has this incredible architecture and a tremendous spirit. I found that this was the place I wanted to get to know.”
Pat Giles, a Reading civic leader who helped Nottage get to know the city, learned through the play about “the power of art to engage and communicate the complex circumstances of people lives, and how underrepresented art and culture is in that way.”
After writing “Sweat,” Nottage says she wanted to give back to the city that had given her so much. She came said she came up with the idea to build a performance installation at the Reading Railroad Franklin Street Station, one of the first and most robust railroad stations in the United States — now an abandoned train station downtown. You might remember the name from the Monopoly game board.
“We decided that we wanted to re-animate that space and fill it with the stories of the people of Reading,” Nottage said. “One of the reasons we wanted to do this was because the city is fractured around economic and racial lines. It has tremendous potential but people aren’t looking each other in the eye and they aren’t talking to each other.”
The installation opens July 14. An art and civic space, it will combine live performance, film, and storytelling. But more important, it will bring people together, said Santo Marabella, Reading’s film commissioner.
“People need a break,” he said. “They need to see themselves and be proud. One of the biggest things about economic development is that it starts with being proud of where you live and work … in the long term anything is possible.”
Marbella gives all the credit to Nottage for helping infuse energy into his city, not only through her play, but also through her ongoing commitment to Reading.
“Many artists would have come and gone,” he said. “They would have taken what they needed, said ‘thank you very much,’ and been out of here. But that’s not who Lynn is. She’s a social change agent, and that part of her wants the audience to be part of the conversation. The play is not the end of the conversation, it’s the beginning.”