Labor of Love

With her latest play, Sweat, School of the Arts professor Lynn Nottage turns hard work into high art.

by Stuart Miller '90JRN Published Spring 2017
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Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, Lynn Nottage loved the stoop culture, with its polyglot mix of working- and middle-class characters hanging out telling tales. “It was a rich storytelling community,” she says of Boerum Hill, where she still lives.

When she wasn’t listening to stories or playing in the streets, Nottage could often be found in the library, reading one book and then “following the trail to another, an adventure with the Dewey Decimal System, weaving around making discoveries.”

Listening and learning — and discovery — have been central to Nottage’s success as a playwright, and were particularly crucial in bringing her latest drama, Sweat, to life. The extraordinarily timely and well-received play, which opens on Broadway this spring, explores the unraveling lives in a working-class community where manufacturing jobs have disappeared. “This compassionate but cleareyed play throbs with heartfelt life, with characters as complicated as any you’ll encounter at the theater today,” wrote Charles Isherwood of the New York Times when Sweat premiered in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout called Nottage “as fine a playwright as America has,” and praised the play’s “raw passion and searching moral consciousness.”

Nottage, a Columbia professor since 2014, is fifty-two and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, filmmaker and fellow Columbia professor Tony Gerber ’95SOA; their children; and her father. They live in the same brownstone in which Nottage grew up, although Boerum Hill, near the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Barclays Center, has gentrified greatly since the days she rode the graffiti-scrawled subway to school with future writer Jonathan Lethem, who later wrote about the neighborhood in novels like The Fortress of Solitude.

While Lethem’s Fortress was set in the late twentieth century, Nottage’s writing went further back. When cleaning out her grandmother’s brownstone after she passed away, Nottage discovered a passport photo of her great-grandmother, who had been a seamstress a century earlier. Nottage became fascinated by this woman and sequestered herself in the New York Public Library to learn more about her world. The result was Nottage’s 2003 breakthrough play, Intimate Apparel. Set in 1905 on the Lower East Side, the play is about Esther, a lonesome, unmarried seamstress who sews bridal undergarments and dreams of love and marriage.

Nottage’s second play, Ruined, was a big departure, geographically and thematically. Mama Nadi, the business-minded proprietor of a brothel in war-torn Congo, protects but also exploits young girls who have been brutalized in the war. Ruined won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

"All my plays are about people who are marginalized by circumstances."

The origins of Sweat go back to 2011. That year, Nottage received an e-mail from a friend who opened up to her about the hardships she had suffered — economic and psychological — after the 2008 financial collapse. Nottage felt she had to do something. As a writer, that meant searching for the story.

She and her friend went down to Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street protesters were encamped, but Nottage knew the real suffering of the economically disenfranchised was unlikely to be found in Lower Manhattan. Not long after, she read an article declaring Reading, Pennsylvania, the poorest city in the nation. Nottage was intrigued by the “de-industrial revolution,” and she saw in that dying city a story crying out to be told.

“All my plays are about people who are marginalized by circumstances,” she says. “The folks on the stage in Sweat are not that different from the folks on the stage in Ruined. These are people who find themselves in the midst of ugly situations, and in order to survive they end up making very compromised choices.”

Armed with a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, Nottage began traveling to Reading to hear its stories. She spoke with everyone from politicians to business owners to angry, unemployed white steelworkers, who blamed the Latino population for many of their problems and who would soon gain attention during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. She was accompanied in her visits over the next few years by her husband and by director Kate Whoriskey, who first worked with Nottage on Intimate Apparel, back in 2003, and who traveled with her to Africa for research on Ruined.

“A lot of playwrights have a thesis and set out to prove it, but Lynn is really going out to explore, and she really is eager to listen,” says Whoriskey. “And she’s willing to put herself in situations that other people might find uncomfortable.”

Whoriskey admits that this “period of searching,” in which Nottage sets off in one direction and then pivots to another, “gets a little scary, and you wonder if we will find a story. But Lynn is confident that if you look long enough, the story will come to you.”

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