Sweat

by

Lynn Nottage

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Sweat Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Lynn Nottage's Sweat. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Lynn Nottage

Lynn Nottage was born in 1964 in Brooklyn to schoolteacher and principal Ruby Nottage and child psychologist Wallace Nottage. She attended Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School (which specializes in visual and performing arts), during which time she wrote The Darker Side of Verona, her first full-length play. Nottage went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Brown University, followed by an MFA from the Yale School of Drama in 1989. After this, Nottage worked at Amnesty International’s press office and went on to write several plays—most notably Intimate Apparel; Ruined; By the Way, Meet Vera Stark; and Sweat. She earned her DFA from Brown in 2011 and has received honorary degrees from Julliard and Albright College. Nottage is married to Tony Gerber, with whom she has two children; she and Gerber are cofounders of Market Road Films production company. Nottage won Pulitzers for both Ruined and Sweat, making her the first and only woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice. She’s also the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, a Merit and Literature Award from The Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Grant, among several other awards and honors. Nottage is currently a professor of playwriting at Columbia University.
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Historical Context of Sweat

Sweat is set in the real-life city of Reading, Pennsylvania, centering on a fictionalized working-class community of laborers who work at steel and textile mills. In 2011, Nottage began research for the play by interviewing residents in Reading, which at the time was one of the U.S.’s poorest cities with a poverty rate of over 40 percent. In particular, Nottage was interested in how the early 2000s downturn in the manufacturing industry destabilized both the economy and race relations in Reading. Nottage has likened her conversations with former steel workers in Reading to those she had with workers in the English Midlands during the 1984 miners’ strike. In this way, Sweat speaks to a prolonged history of working-class struggle both in the U.S. and abroad. The play also references the 2008 recession, in particular the contrast between how big banks were bailed out versus how ordinary Americans suffered financially during this time. First performed in 2015, critics lauded Sweat for its raw portrayal of blue-collar Americans. The play has specifically been praised for the insight it gives into the culture of the Rust Belt, the Northern region of the U.S. that was the country’s hotspot of heavy industry up until the late 20th century.

Other Books Related to Sweat

As a play concerned with the everyday lives and struggles of blue-collar Americans, Sweat is a kind of contemporary extension of Britain’s 20th-century “kitchen sink realism” movement, which sought to portray the often-grim realities of working-class life. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey are two well-known kitchen sink plays that focus on the social issues facing young, working-class Britons in the 1950s. Sweat is also similar to Philipp Meyer’s novel American Rust and J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which both paint honest and nuanced portraits of the American Rust Belt region where Sweat takes place. Additionally, as a play that tackles a wide range of social issues—including financial hardship, racial animosity, addiction, and fraught relationships—Sweat is comparable to Annie Baker’s The Flick, Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful, Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman, and Nottage’s own Intimate Apparel. Also relevant is Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” the poem which Nottage chose as the epigraph to the play and which encapsulates the critique of the American Dream that echoes throughout Sweat.
Key Facts about Sweat
  • Full Title: Sweat
  • When Published: First performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: Reading, Pennsylvania, alternating between 2001 and 2008
  • Climax: While Jason and Chris are attacking Oscar at the local bar, Jason accidentally hits Stan in the head with a baseball bat, leaving him permanently disabled with a traumatic brain injury.

Extra Credit for Sweat

Reading Rainbow. In 2017, Nottage and a team of fellow artists put on an experimental multimedia experience called This is Reading in Reading, Pennsylvania (where Sweat is set). The project mixed live performance and visual media with the goal of weaving individuals’ unique stories of struggle and success into to a unified narrative about the city.

A Book by its Cover. Although Nottage’s writing often portrays the daily lives and hardships of marginalized people, she’s stated that she doesn't want her plays to be judged based on her race or gender in a way that her white male counterparts’ work isn’t.