Her new play, “Sweat,” follows a multicultural group of steelworkers in Reading, Pa., from 2000 to 2008 as union jobs evaporate and their middle-class community crumbles. Co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage, the play debuted in Oregon last summer and had its East Coast premiere at Arena last weekend.
When Nottage got the commission, her first instinct was to rent an RV and tour the country, gathering stories. But when the expenses turned out to be more than she thought, she decided to focus on a single city: Reading, one of the poorest in America.
For two years starting in 2012, Nottage and her team interviewed a variety of Reading residents, including the mayor, social workers and a group of homeless people who lived in an encampment in the woods.
“When we first began going to the city, people said, ‘Oh, it’s dangerous’ … but, by and large, most of the people we encountered wanted to be heard and, as a result, welcomed us with open arms,” she says.
One of Nottage’s favorite spots to visit was a particular blue-collar bar. “When we walked in, we could tell it was a lively, intimate, beautiful space,” she says. “It was a place where really rich conversation occurred, and I thought, ‘This is a place where I want to set my play.’ ”
Among the interwoven stories of “Sweat” is one featuring three close friends, all middle-aged women who have put in a combined 60 years working at a metal tubing plant. As the local economy collapses, so do their marriages. Even their friendships feel the strain, especially when one of the women — Cynthia (Kimberly Scott) — is offered a promotion.
“She has the opportunity to be promoted to manager just at the point when most of the people who work on the floor are being laid off, and it puts her in a difficult, fragile place,” Nottage says. “It’s a moral dilemma for her: Do I accept this opportunity that’s very rare for women and for people of color, or do I sit in solidarity with my friends?”
Cynthia, like all of the characters in “Sweat,” is Nottage’s own invention, but the story of an entire community’s collapse is very real, director Kate Whoriskey says. And it’s not just limited to Reading.
“I think Lynn is really writing about the new poor — people who were middle-class and who really had a life that was defined by work and who are really struggling now that factory jobs have moved to other counties,” Whoriskey says.
By staging “Sweat” in D.C. during an election year, Nottage hopes to bring these often forgotten people to the attention of policymakers.
“It’s very important that we find places where we can produce the play where there is an audience that might be in a position to really hear the story,” she says, “and be in a position to effect some change.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; through Feb. 21, $40-$90.