NEW YORK — In 2011, the playwright Lynn Nottage received a letter from a friend, a single mother of two who lived on her Brooklyn block, that crystallized the depth of the country’s crippling economic downturn and its effects on the middle class. The friend revealed to Nottage that she’d been out of work for a long time and was now struggling to make ends meet. “She wrote . . . to me and a couple of other friends, saying, ‘I’m broke. I’m in dire straits. I’m not asking for anything. I just need you guys to know what I’m going through,’ ” Nottage recalls in a recent conversation over breakfast at a cafe near her home in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she grew up. “She had felt too embarrassed to share her predicament [earlier].”
It was an all-too-familiar story of economic anxiety and job loss that was playing out across the country in the wake of the recession and foreclosure crisis. Not long after, Nottage took that friend to the Occupy Wall Street protests in Manhattan. As Nottage heard stories of financial hardship and critiques of the nation’s growing inequality, her anger rose. At one point, she gave a fiery address to the assembled throng. “I lost my voice from shouting,” she says with a laugh. “But I realized there’s a much bigger story that couldn’t be answered by the people sitting in the circle. I had to actually go and find that story for myself.”
Her search for answers led her to write “Sweat,” about the fractures that open up within a group of factory workers facing layoffs and a lockout. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama and an Obie Award, and it opened on Broadway in 2017, a first for Nottage, who’d also written the popular and widely produced plays “Ruined” and “Intimate Apparel.” The Huntington Theatre Company is giving “Sweat” its Boston premiere at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, beginning Friday.
Around the time of those personal experiences, Nottage received a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” series, new plays that grapple with moments of change in US history. She chose to focus on what’s been called “the de-industrial revolution,” the decline of the nation’s manufacturing base.
Nottage’s quest eventually led her to Reading, Pa., which had been described in a 2011 news story as the poorest American city of its size — with 41.3 percent of its approximately 88,000 residents living in poverty. “I wanted to find a city that was a microcosm of what was happening to America as a whole,” Nottage says. “For many years, Reading had welcomed immigrants from all over the world, and those immigrants could literally get off the bus and within an hour have a job. So how could a city that was thriving and so alive wither like a grape on the vine?”
Over the course of the next 2½ years, Nottage traveled to Reading often, speaking with a diverse array of residents. Those interviews formed the backbone of “Sweat,” which opened at the Public Theater off-Broadway just a few days before the 2016 presidential election, then transferred to Broadway the following spring. Critics and audiences pointed to the play, set in the years 2000 and 2008 as globalization and outsourcing decimated manufacturing across the country, as getting to the heart of the disaffection and anger that they believe had fueled Donald Trump’s election.
"The audience response to the play the day before the election and the day after shifted dramatically," Nottage says. "Something that they sat back at with a level of distance and amusement became much more relevant. It was fascinating."
“Sweat” was partially inspired by Nottage’s conversations with a group of steelworkers who’d been locked out of a metal-tubing plant for 93 weeks. “The story is about people who’ve invested in the American Dream, who had a set of assumptions about what they were entitled to. And what happens to them and their community when we don’t have access to the American Dream anymore? What does that do to you emotionally?” says Nottage, who won her first Pulitzer, in 2009, for “Ruined.” To research that play, she had taken a similar approach, interviewing Congolese women who’d been victimized in the country’s civil war.
The fictional story of “Sweat” centers on a group of steelworker friends who hang out at a nearby bar after hours. Tracey, who is white, and Cynthia, who is black, have been friends for more than 20 years, working alongside each other on the assembly line and even taking vacations together. But when Cynthia lands a management position that Tracey had also applied for, Tracey accuses her of betrayal. The tension worsens when the company starts laying off workers to ship jobs to Mexico. Eventually, the union workers are locked out, and racial resentments rise to the surface. Caught between this chasm are Tracey and Cynthia’s sons, Jason and Chris, who’ve been friends since childhood.
“When they’re faced with hardship, Tracey and Cynthia’s friendship is really tested, not just along economic lines but racial lines,” says Nottage says, whose “Fabulation or, the Re-Education of Undine” will be produced by Lyric Stage Company this spring. “I think that people of color are very easy scapegoats. As a woman of color, my life has been defined by struggle, by feeling marginalized, by constantly having to assert my voice and be seen. So it was fascinating sitting with these white steelworkers who had taken for granted their privilege and seeing them humbled and seeing them understand something about the world in a very different way.”
The show’s director, Kimberly Senior, says she loves to work on plays like “Sweat” that zero in on “a moment in the past in order to illuminate the present.”
“Because in the moment of experiencing something, we often cannot see it. We are too inside it,” she says. “Why is there this huge income gap in America? Why are our racial chasms ever widening? And this play is saying, if you just look back, there are answers hidden in the past.”
In the play, one of the characters pinpoints the corrosive feeling simmering below the surface, and it isn’t simply rage or frustration at being tossed aside: “I know from experience it’s shame that eats away at us,” he says. For Nottage, that was an important insight, along with following a motto she learned years ago in a writers workshop: “Replace judgment with curiosity,” she says. “For me, that unlocked everything. I thought, oh, that’s how I’m going to live my life, with an openness and a renewed sense of empathy.”
Spending time in Reading, Nottage says she became fascinated by "the ways that communities begin to cannibalize each other” and how racism and xenophobia rear their ugly heads. “I think that that was at the forefront of my mind — these self-destructive impulses. When we’re in pain, sometimes our impulse is to grab and pull someone else down with us, rather than to reach up and ask for help or have solidarity with each other.
“I saw how everyone was suffering in isolation and pointing blame at someone else, rather than looking at the community as a whole and saying, ‘Wait a minute, all of us are in the same predicament. Why don’t we find a solution together instead?’ ”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Jan. 31-March 1. Tickets start at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.