Lynn Nottage, the Brooklyn-based playwright whose work has been widely produced in Chicago theaters over the years, has just been awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Sweat,” her uncannily timely play about the shutdown of a steel factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, and the resulting economic and racial chaos in that working-class town where friendships and family ties also are irreparably damaged.
The play, which began Off Broadway, is now in a Broadway run that marks the first time one of Nottage’s plays has been produced on Broadway.
“Sweat,” which earlier won the 2015-16 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, was written on a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, and was presented at the Festival in Ashland, Oregon, in July, 2015 under the direction of Kate Whoriskey, and then at Arena Stage in January, 2016. The play premiered Off Broadway at the Public Theatre on Nov. 3, again directed by Whoriskey, and had its official Broadway opening at Studio 54 on March 26, 2017.
In a brief chat Monday afternoon following the announcement of her award, Nottage said: “I would love Chicago to be the first city to produce the play after its New York run, and conversations are already underway about that.”
This is Nottage’s second Pulitzer. The first, in 2009, was for “Ruined” (which debuted at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre), a scathing look at the impact of the brutal civil war in the (so-called) Democratic Republic of Congo, and that war’s horrific impact on women.
Other productions of Nottage’s work in Chicago have included “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” (also at the Goodman), and, in 2014, when Eclipse Theatre devoted an entire season to revivals of her plays, including “Ruined,” “Intimate Apparel” and “Mud, River, Stone.”
The Pulitzer drama award, which includes a $10,000 prize, is “for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” Previous playwrights honored include August Wilson, Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Recent winners include Annie Baker’s “The Flick,” Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Between Riverside and Crazy,” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.”
Nottage made her first visit to Reading, Pa. in 2011, hoping to gather information around a still unformed idea.
“My interest really began with the Occupy Wall Street movement, when I sensed the unspoken turmoil occurring in this country,” said Nottage. “It just felt as if a great number of people felt disgruntled and under-represented. Reading [Pa.] was one of those industrial centers, like others in the country, where things had gone bad. But the good thing is I had no connections there, so I felt totally free to listen and reflect. And there was one conversation I had with workers who had been locked out of a metal tubing factory that became the genesis for the play; the stories these people told just broke my heart.”
If all this sounds like Nottage might have had a prescient feeling about the ascent of Donald Trump nothing could be further from the truth.
“How could I ever have predicted that?,” she quipped. “What was not a surprise, however, was the level of anger and disaffection in the country.”
In the wake of the Broadway production, and now the Pulitzer Prize honor, Nottage is most engaged in returning to Reading in May with an ambitious site-specific multimedia installation, “This Is Reading. ” A blend of live performance and visual media, it will re-animate the historic Franklin Street Railroad Station in downtown Reading, a long-vacant building.
The installation will weave individual stories that Nottage and director Whoriskey probed before the actual writing of “Sweat,” bringing them into one cohesive and compelling tale of the city that explores “the hardships, challenges and triumphs of people living in and around Reading.”
“I’ve spoken to many people in the city about this project, and the one thing they said they wanted was something beautiful and reflective and not focused on poverty,” said Nottage.
“Residents of Reading speak about themselves in the past tense,” said the playwright, who is collaborating with Whoriskey, filmmaker Tony Gerber, projection designer Jeff Sugg, set designer Christine Jones, and producers Jane M. Saks, Blake Ashman-Kipervaser, and Allison Bressi. “I want to explore how this city is taking steps to re-imagine itself in the present tense – how it is grappling with how to reclaim a narrative that has been fractured along racial and economic lines.”
Asked whether her first Pulitzer Prize drove her forward or had an inhibiting effect, Nottage mused: “I’m one who loves to take the slow road and look at all the scenery.” Meanwhile, she already has spoken about writing a sequel to “Sweat.”
After answering a congratulatory phone call from her 19-year-old daughter, Nottage, 52, noted, “She’s a gifted writer of essays and poetry, and plays, too. And I really want her to outpace me and give me a rest.”
Asked where her passion for theater began, Nottage recalled: “It was with a production of Charles Fuller’s play, ‘Zooman and the Sign’ [in 1980], produced by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York. I was a teenager at the time, and it was the first play that I used my own money to see. And I paid for a second ticket to see it again. It left an indelible impression.”
Set in Philadelphia in 1979, “Zooman” focused on the murder of a 12-year-old African-American girl — a crime seen by many, although none of the local witnesses will reveal who the killer was, despite the family’s quest for justice.