The outcome of this year’s American presidential election will have implications for all of us—whether or not we get a vote. A revival of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat is therefore both timely and welcome.

Hailed by the New Yorker as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump erawhen it made its Broadway debut in 2017, Sweat is a play that dramatizes, with empathy and without judgment, the nationwide anxiety that helped put Donald Trump in the White House (Ben Brantley, New York Times). Eight years after that fateful election of November 2016, those anxieties have not gone away. 

Nottage, it must be said, did not write her play with Trump in mind.

Sweat depicts scenes taking place in 2000 and 2008, at either end of the Bush administration, and was written when Barack Obama was president. Its premiere production, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, was just going into rehearsal when Trump announced his intention to run for office. Nevertheless, Nottage’s depiction of the troubled lives of Pennsylvania factory workers was to prove eerily prescient. When Trump won the 2016 election (despite losing the popular vote nationwide), it was thanks primarily to what political commentators have referred to as “the flipping of the Rust Belt”. The former industrial powerhouse states of the American Northeast and Midwest—including Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—swang decisively in Trump’s favour. Working-class voters in these states, many of them traditionally Democratic-leaning union members, had been drawn to the Republican cause by the orange billionaire’s bombastic insistence that America was no longer the great nation it once had been—that something had gone wrong and needed fixing. Trump successfully exploited a deep groundswell of frustration, disappointment and barely suppressed rage.  

Although Democrat campaign strategists had ignored or overlooked the changing public mood in these key swing states, Lynn Nottage’s research for Sweat had made her well aware of it. Back in 2011, she had read a New York Times article about Reading, Pennyslvania, which had recently been named the poorest city in the United States. In a small community of 65,000 residents, more than 42% of them were living below the poverty line, thanks to mass redundancies in local industry. The town was also now ravaged by America’s opioid epidemic, as many residents sought escape in narcotic oblivion. Reading had become the kind of place that most people might seek to avoid—but Nottage decided to go visit, in search of a story. She ended up spending months conducting interviews with local residents, from steelworkers to business owners, police officers to drug addicts. And what she noticed, in particular, was that when she asked people to talk about Reading, they immediately began speaking in the past tense: “Reading was…” A pervasive sense of nostalgia had descended on the town: Nottage’s respondents spoke of a time, not so long ago, when there were good jobs, and a sense of community, and a sense of things to look forward to. And that was all gone now. 

For the residents of Reading, the problems had started with NAFTA. The North American Free Trade Agreement, first implemented in 1994, had created a free-trade zone with America’s immediate neighbours, Canada and Mexico. Aggressively promoted by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, NAFTA was said to herald a new era of economic prosperity. But in practice, it prompted many American companies to move their manufacturing operations south of the border, into Mexico—where labour costs were significantly cheaper, and trade unions were less of an obstacle. American factory workers were faced with a stark choice: either to take a swingeing pay cut, in order to stay competitive, or else to accept redundancy 

When you’re the victim of unjust treatment, it is always tempting to look for a visible scapegoat. Racially-charged resentment was palpable in Reading, Nottage found. Yet African Americans—who had been relatively well-integrated into the local workforce—were not its primary targets. Rather, with jobs migrating to Mexico, it was people of Hispanic heritage who bore the brunt of local anger. Latino men were accused of taking “scab” jobs in Reading’s remaining factories, and thus of undermining trade union solidarity. Yet in American labour relations, solidarity had always been a questionable proposition. If a union had a closed-shop agreement with management, for example—and thus a say in new hires—shop stewards had all too often fallen into the trap of hiring people they already knew: people from their communities; people from their families.

So why act in solidarity with a union that excludes you?  

During her research in Reading, Nottage found these contradictions staring her in the face. Yet she noticed, too, that the grievances expressed by white workers sounded strangely familiar. “When you interview Black and Latino folks,” she told American Theatre magazine, “there is a narrative that has existed for the last fifty years of being sort of disaffected by the culture. But I sat in rooms with middle-aged white men and heard them speaking like young Black men in America. They also feel disenfranchised, disaffected.” Nottage’s empathy for these men was understandably ambivalent, given her own experiences as a Black woman. Yet she understood that, when the majority population starts to feel like an excluded minority, the results are potentially explosive. These were the fault-lines that she sought to dramatise in Sweat. 

There are, of course, fault-lines in the arts world too. When Sweat opened on Broadway in 2017, it was at Studio 54. This opulent theatre, decorated in gold, was once a fabled nightclub—one that Donald Trump himself would have frequented during its disco-era peak. At Studio 54, the ticket prices for Sweat were far out of reach of the kind of working people depicted in the play. It seems telling, then, that Nottage returned to Reading that same year, in the hope of giving something back to the community. We didn’t want to feel like carpetbaggers,” she explained to an interviewer, “people that sort of go in, take stories and then leave.Working together with local community groups and artists, Nottage and her collaborators created This is Reading—a sprawling celebration of the town, enacted across multiple public sites. Presented free of charge, this show’s three-weekend run attracted audiences of more than three thousand, and involved local residents as singers, dancers, actors and storytellers. This is Reading adopted a positive, upbeat approach to the town’s history and future—in the hope of contributing to a healing of wounds.

“I am hoping the project builds empathy,” Nottage explained, as it welcomes people into the stories of others’ lives.”  

Sweat itself adopts a darker, more foreboding tone than its companion piece. It depicts, in every sense of the word, a modern tragedy. Yet if light is to be glimpsed here, it is in Nottage’s persistent invitation to care—about all of the play’s characters. In a world where empathy for those we disagree with is often in short supply, her fictionalised rendering of Reading’s recent history invites us to understand the divergent struggles of others. To paraphrase the words of another American playwright, Arthur Miller, attention must be paid to such a town.  

Stephen Scott-Bottoms is Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the University of Manchester. His latest book, published this month, is Incarceration Games: A History of Role-Play in Psychology, Prisons and Performance (University of Michigan Press).