by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
Longtime collaborators Lynn Nottage and Kate Whoriskey have teamed up again for the world premiere of Sweat. Whoriskey's New York credits include Public Studio shows Ping Pong and Manahatta (The Public), Tales From Red Vienna and Ruined (Manhattan Theatre Club, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel Award nominations) and The Miracle Worker (Broadway’s Circle in the Square). Regional credits include Goodman Theatre, Geffen Playhouse, American Repertory Theater, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Huntington Theatre Company and Oregon Shakespeare Festival (click here for a complete bio). During rehearsals I spoke with Kate about Sweat, her work with Lynn Nottage, and the pursuit of the American Dream. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
At the opening night of the revival of How I Learned to Drive, Lynn mentioned that she had a project she wanted to talk to me about. We met a few days later and she told me a story. A close friend of hers had written an email letting Lynn know that she had been struggling with poverty for the last year. Lynn was surprised that her friend did not confide in her earlier. The story got Lynn thinking about America's new economic paradigm post 2008 and particularly the new poor.
At the time of our meeting, she had not written anything but was doing research on a city that was named the poorest city in America, Reading, Pennsylvania. We decided to go down to investigate further the following month.
I have learned that when Lynn invites you somewhere, it is worth taking her up on the offer.
You’ve worked with Lynn before and developed a deep, trusting artistic relationship. How would you describe your collaboration? Why do you think it works as well as it does?
Sweat marks our fourth collaboration together. I think over the years we have developed a deep trust of one another and a strong sense of each other's intent.
I consider Lynn one of the great writers of our time. Her work has a deep sense of purpose, beautifully drawn characters and a wicked sense of humor. So it is always a pleasure to work with such great material and a trusted friend.
How would you describe the town of Reading and the people? What struck you most during your visits?
I think Reading in some ways is haunted by its past success. You see evidence of the once vibrant railroads, the extraordinary architecture of downtown, the factories now closed. There is so much evidence of a bustling past life that it is difficult to redefine itself anew.
A through line of Sweat is the American Dream — both the pursuit of it and the modern-day disappointment. Where do you find hope?
I think the hope lies in Lynn's ability to articulate the struggles that so many Americans are having today. NAFTA was devastating for so many unions. Lynn allows us a window into what happened to many of the individuals affected when NAFTA came into effect, and a moment to process the loss.
Hope is tentatively placed in the next generation in the play, as they attempt to face the aftermath of choices their parents have made, their own actions, and how to find their way through to forgiveness and healing.
So much of the identity of these characters, and of their entire community, is wrapped up in their work. That’s a very American mindset, that I am what I do, my job gives me value and purpose. So when we lose our jobs — or they’re taken from us — what’s left?
When I was in college, the father of one of my friends was unemployed for several months. Every day during this time, he woke up at 6 AM, showered and put on a suit. Even when he had no interviews. He told his son it was his way not to be broken.
Months and months went by. When he finally got a job, I wished him congratulations. He smiled and said, "Thank you! That suit was getting very heavy to wear."
Lynn’s called this period America’s De-Industrial Revolution. How did that inform your direction of Sweat?
The vision of the play shows the devolving of a community. Relationships, people and lives come undone over the course of the play. The thrumming undercurrent of the violence of the play is manifested in the unraveling of this community. The design and vision of the show reflect this.
Do your responsibilities as a director/storyteller change when you’re directing a world premiere versus a classic play? Do you feel any different sort of pressures or obligations?
As the director of a new play, you have a responsibility to foster and nurture the work. You're working to help the show find its voice. The play is an ever-evolving, living thing. When it is new, you are the caretaker — both challenging and taking care if it as it grows.
D.C. recently hosted the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and introduced a lot of new female playwrights/artists to our audiences. What female artists are you excited by right now?
There is such a wonderful group of women working today...
Julia Cho, Sarah Ruhl, Tanya Barfield, Paula Vogel, Jeanine Tesori, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jo Bonney, Tina Landau, Amy Herzog, Anna Shapiro, Pam MacKinnon, Mary Kathryn Nagle, and many more.
(Photos: Kimberly Scott, Kevin Kenerly, Tara Mallen and Johanna Day in Sweat. Stephen Michael Spencer and Tramell Tillman in Sweat. Photos by C. Stanley Photography.)