On the morning following their final performance at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater, the cast of Sweat, along with playwright Lynn Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey, boarded a bus headed to Reading, Pennsylvania to perform the play for the community that sparked its concept. It was their most memorable performance—for several reasons.
“It was an extreme extraordinary experience,” recalls Nottage. “We didn’t know what the reception was going to be…I was very nervous.” The playwright says that she was so anxious she couldn’t bear to sit in the audience. Instead, she stood at the back and listened to the performance on a monitor.
In 2011, Nottage took a trip to Reading in search of a story. She began interviewing as many people as possible—in homeless shelters, in local government, and in factories. Captivated by the people she met, the playwright wrote Sweat. Set in Reading, the play tells the story of a group of friends who have spent their lives working together on the factory floor. When rumors of layoffs begin to fly, rifts form that chip away at their trust and pit them against each other. It’s a play about the American economy, friendship, and loyalty.
Sweat had its world premiere at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and again in 2016 at the Public Theater. It debuted Off-Broadway to critical acclaim, and prior to finishing its sold-out run, announced a Broadway transfer. The play began previews on Broadway March 4, and will officially open March 26 with all-but-one of the original Off-Broadway cast members in tow.
Before debuting Sweat on Broadway, Nottage knew that it was important to bring the play to Reading—to give the people who had motivated it a chance to see themselves and their struggles depicted on the stage. She said that the response from the audience in Reading was “overwhelming.”
“[They] felt that it was enormously reflective of their experience,” says Nottage, “that it had a truthfulness that they appreciated.” She says that after the performance, the audience was encouraged to ask questions. “It was almost like church,” recalls the playwright. “People stood up and wanted to share their own experiences—many cases incredibly moving and mirrored what was happening in the play.”
For the actors, the experience of performing the play in Reading held deep meaning. “It was one of the best audiences we’ve ever had,” says Johanna Day, who plays Tracey. “I think it meant everything to them, and it meant everything to us.”
“It made the play even more raw, and even more beautiful,” says Michelle Wilson, who plays Cynthia. “We’ve always had thunderous reactions but there was something profoundly validating about this play going home—for both us and them.”
The Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis was also present at the performance in Reading, and made a speech about the importance of bringing the performing arts to places outside of cultural centers like New York City. “While people [in these rural areas] are facing economic disparity, they’re also not culturally supported,” says Whoriskey, who has directed Sweat since its world premiere and also helped Nottage conduct research in Reading from 2011–2012. For Whoriskey, the performance was significant because it was about engaging the wider American community in a dialogue, and the impact of that.
Nottage hopes that working class people will come to see the show on Broadway and will feel as represented as the audience felt in Reading. This, she says, is what will ultimately help change the face of Broadway and the types of stories that we see onstage. “It’s not just true about working class stories, I think its true about stories about women, and I think it true about stories about people of color,“ says the playwright. “The more we can put these stories on the stage, the more the audiences are going to grow and reflect the complexity of the country we live in.“