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Stuart Rockoff Sits Down and Talks with Sweat  Director Francine Thomas Reynolds and Dramaturg Dr. Elissa Sartwell, Part 1

Stuart Rockoff: What’s the origin of how you ended up with Sweat?

Francine Thomas Reynolds: This is interesting, I was aware of the commissioning that Oregon Shakespeare Festival was doing. They were commissioning plays about America’s condition or American issues/politics. So, Lynn Nottage was one of the playwrights that was asked to write a play. Also, I was made aware because of All the Way, another OSF commissioned work and because an actor who has been in plays at New Stage, Tramell Tillman, was a company member at OSF during the time that Sweat was at both the Arena Stage and OSF. I was following what OSF was doing with these commissions and thought we might be interested in Sweat at some point.

SR: Why were you interested in it? Because it’s not the usual fare that New Stage presents.

FTR: My mind has been going more towards contemporary plays that are about situations and relationships that have some reflection of Mississippi in some ways. And in this one, there are a few things, the topic of racism in general and racism in the workforce. I know that’s something a lot of Mississippi citizens have experienced in their lifetimes. But also, this play is about the working class. It takes place in a part of the country that was stricken by poverty, lower wages for some people, and I think that has a resonance in Mississippi.

SR: And the changes in the global economy and how it affects people in places like Reading, Pa.

FTR: Yes, and how it affects us. And so, in striving to diversify our cast and diversify our programming I was looking at plays that had a balance of racial makeup in the cast. Other things had attracted me such as a female playwright who had won a Pulitzer, we don’t get the opportunity to do the works of female playwrights as much as I wish we did because most traditional or classic plays are or were written by men.

SR: And strong female characters that are not acting in stereotypical or typical female roles, not the Southern Belle or but a different kind of role, in this case industrial workers. So obviously race is an issue, but talk a little more about how you think this story, which is a northeastern, rust belt, industrial story, how that you think will be understood or seen by your audience here in Jackson.

FTR: I think that what happened in Reading, Pa. and that area of the country is a microcosm for all of America and it deals with subjects that we don’t talk about a lot, racism, the type of drug addiction that is not your street drug addiction, opiate addiction, and the thing we never really talk about a lot in the theatre is the working class. We don’t talk about class divisions. We don’t really talk about things like credit card debt in plays. We don’t talk about what happened in 2000 that led us to 2008 when so many people lost everything. We don’t talk about the struggle to pay our mortgage. People get embarrassed by that stuff I think.

SR: What struck me when I read the play, is I think New stage has a long track record of doing plays that address the racial divides, certainly Hell in High Water was a great example of that. And in this one, certainly race is a part, but its race that seems to be kind of an off shoot of class. And this is a play that is all about class. Cynthia is the character that symbolizes that because she moves from working on the floor to working in the office and the changes that brings to her social life. It’ll be interesting to see how the audience responds because I don’t think they are as used to that.

FTR: Yes, it’s different. The things that are not different are relationships, mother and son relationships, friend relationships, labor and management relationships, that conflict that you find in relationships is universal and our audiences are used to seeing that. This type of town is different than poverty in Mississippi, I think. Having grown up in an area of the country that was rust belt/iron ore belt type of thing, I recognize the atmosphere, I recognize the environment; I grew up in a town that had two main streets, and those main streets had 20 bars. That’s different because in the south our gathering places are typically or traditionally the family dinner table, reunions, churches, family events, that type of thing. And in Sweat and in Reading Pa. and in a lot of similar labor towns the gathering place was a watering hole so to speak, the neighborhood tavern. And so much so that in those towns the shipping and packing went to one bar and the people who worked on the line went to another bar. That’s different, we don’t do that here. We have places we go to and socialize but it’s different here. And also, the language. The dialogue or the characteristics of the conversations are different in the sense of what is taboo to say and what is not.

SR: Let’s talk about the f****ing elephant in the room, which is the language in the play. Is that something you are concerned about; are you going to change it? How are the expletives going to be handled?

FTR: These people wouldn’t be who they are unless they were using strong language. It’s how they talk. Its who they are. It’s not for shock value. Lynn Nottage didn’t put strong language in there because she thought it would be funny. It’s the way they talk. It’s their dialogue. It’s their conversation. She interviewed people that she based these characters on. It’s different for us because it’s more course language than what we usually have in place at New Stage but more and more contemporary plays have this language because it’s a reflection of the way people talk. It’s something that’s of concern only because people are not used to hearing it on our stage as much, but you can’t change the dialogue of a play. If you wanted to change the dialogue of a play, you have to contact the entity that you licensed the play from, they have to contact the playwright, the playwright then gives you permission to make changes. To do that you wouldn’t be doing this play.

Elissa Sartwell: You mentioned the play is set in a bar; it’s in a long line of naturalistic plays set in bars and around watering holes that deal with labor issues. So, Clifford Odets, Eugene O’Neil, and now we have this. You can’t have this sort of naturalism without capturing the vernacular of the people that you are portraying in that space. Nottage is very careful to be a listener. One of the things I love about her is that she said, “Less judgement, more curiosity.” So, as she’s interviewing people she is curious, how do you talk, what do you talk about, that sort of thing. She wants to honor and give voice to those people.

SR: And so, this play came out of this research from her?

ES: There’s a fantastic article by Michael Schulman in The New Yorker about the family that she grew up with in Brooklyn, the neighborhood she grew up in, I believe she still lives in the house that she grew up in. That she sees herself as a listener. One of the things that I found very interesting, when you look at the works of say David Mamet or Suzan Lori Parks, you read a play and say “oh that’s a Suzan Lori Parks play or that’s a Mamet play.” Lynn Nottage’s plays don’t have that sort of unifying stylistic thing. It’s very diverse. She herself says there are two things she believes unifies her work as a whole. One is giving a voice to the unvoiced, in order to do that you have to honor their voice. And the second thing, which comes right back into this notion of language and behavior that these characters exhibit both onstage and off, a sense of heroes that are ambiguous. Moral ambiguity. That there is not this clearly defined good guy and clearly defined bad guy. Lynn Nottage’s heroes are complicated people who do good things and bad things. They are flawed and that’s why they are able to be heroic in some ways too.

FTR: She was contacted by someone who was out of work, and she started to look around. She realized that a lot of the urban people or a lot of people who had some advantage or privilege were living in a bubble and not realizing what had been happening in our country.

SR: Your line about one of her themes is to ‘give voice to the unvoiced,’ I think at a certain point in American History that perspective wasn’t unvoiced. Thinking about Clifford Odets, thinking about the 1950s, that kind of “the struggles of the white working class” or even more middle class, Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, and then seemingly, I’m not a theatre expert, but over the last several decades we’ve kind of moved away from that and drawing it up to contemporary times the idea of the unvoiced, this was been part of the public discussion of the play is mapping with what is happening politically in America today. This sense of there is a working class, often a white working class…

ES: …that feels underrepresented and un-listened to. I think there is a difference between somebody who has never had a voice, fighting for a voice and somebody who had a voice, lost the voice, is angry about having lost the voice. And that’s something that the people of Reading, Pa. share with the people of Mississippi, for sure.

 

Stay tuned for another installment of this wonderful conversation. Special thanks to Dr. Stuart Rockoff, Director the the Mississippi Humanities Council; Francine Thomas Reynolds, Director of Sweat and Artistic Director at New Stage Theatre; and Dr. Elissa Sartwell, Dramaturg for Sweat and Associate Professor of Theatre at Belhaven University.

 


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