Lynn Nottage is one of our most acclaimed playwrights: she earned a Pulitzer Prize for Ruined, about women caught in the crossfire of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; she received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts; and, in 2007, she was named a MacArthur "genius grant" fellow.
She's also an activist who has a long history of protesting and, as she describes it, "walking in circles and chanting in the cold." She once worked for Amnesty International, and she participated in Occupy Wall Street, as well as countless rallies that began when she was still a child, marching with her feminist mother.
Now a Nottage play is being produced on Broadway for the first time. Sweat, which was commissioned for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "American Revolution" program — focusing on new plays inspired by moments of change in our history — tells a story that's becoming all too familiar: the halcyon days of solid careers in factories and manufacturing are long gone, and the communities whose survival depends on these jobs have to change.
Nottage was moved to research and write the play based on a 2011 New York Times article headlined "Reading, Pa., Knew It Was Poor. Now It Knows Just How Poor," in which Reading was named the most impoverished city in America. We spoke on the phone before Sweat's opening night.
Leigh Flayton: Have you always been an activist?
Lynn Nottage: My mother was a feminist and a civil-rights activist going way, way back. I think the first marches that I participated in were probably when I was five or six years old: Equal Rights Amendment, fair housing, and Black Power marches.
I remember early on, the Rolling Stones had released an album (Some Girls) in which one of the songs spoke about African American women in a very denigrating way. My mother was outraged and she organized a protest. I'm sort of at the tail end of that generation, so I came of age in the wake of women who had really done a lot of good work to push us forward. It's just very much part of my DNA as a writer and as an artist, this pull to social activism.
LF: There was some criticism of the Women's March and the Day Without a Woman strike that they were for women of privilege. What do you make of that criticism?
LN: One of the phrases that I use is "to stay in the complexity." I think that some of the criticism is that women of color in particular have been struggling and don't feel that some white women of privilege have always been our allies in the struggle. But to demand that we be allies when there are larger struggles … I think there is that tension that exists but, that said, I do think it's important for all of us to participate in things like the Women's March, because there is strength in unity. And one of the reasons that I [marched in New York] is that I didn't see that there was a march about white women or black women — I saw it was a march about women, and about ensuring that our voices continue to be heard, particularly in the midst of an administration that really feels resistant to include a multitude of women.
LF : One of the only pleasant thoughts I had on November 9 was that art and activism were going to go into full swing.
LN : Well, we've got no choice, do we? It's the moment when we really have to begin to shout a lot louder than we have in the past. I think that — you talk about privilege — and I thought one of the privileges we had during the Obama years was to invest in our optimism. And to feel like things were moving forward and, for the first time, to be able to sit back a tiny bit. But I think that now we understand that there is a real urge and necessity for us to keep the fight alive. 'Cause a lot of the things that we are struggling for, we might in the next two or three years see them disappear.