I have had the pleasure of attending many performances either created by, including and/ or otherwise related to people of the African Diaspora. These creative cultural expressions all point to the diversity of the “Black Experience” in America and beyond. It is essential that this diversity be acknowledged. Diaspora Africans in America have never been a monolithic block, despite efforts by systemic racist narratives to lump us all into a single identity. Appreciating our diversity as a people is important and is certainly evident in the countless means of creative expression we demonstrate in the arts. Artists are the pulse of society; therefore, it is evermore important that Black artists in all media are acknowledged and supported.
Cultural Coal Mines
In this age of political intolerance and social narcissism, we all wonder what’s on the horizon. Artists are the cultural canaries in society’s darkened coal mines. The work produced and the responses to it, official and grassroots, are an indication of our survival as a species endowed with intellect and compassion. It takes strength, guts, balls, ovaries to survive a stint in the coal mine and come out singing (or swinging) or just breathing. Not every bird can accomplish this. Who wants to be a canary in a coal mine anyway? Which brings me to playwright, Lynn Nottage.
Phoenixes and Women Protagonists
Like the legendary phoenix, Ms. Nottage’s work explodes in flames of clarity and Truth, shocking us back to consciousness, forcing us to reexamine our values: her play Intimate Apparel suggests how quietly love and intimacy can be expressed despite barriers of race, religion and tradition. Women’s self-discovery and appreciation of their own identities, independence, and power are recurring themes throughout Nottage’s work including Intimate Apparel, Ruined, Las Meninas, and Meet Vera Stark.
Issues versus Entertainment
Ms. Nottage explores big stories, archetypal ideas through characters who represent more than they are, but are never stereotypical. She tells historical truths without being pedantic. She explores relevant social issues without beating her audiences over the head with ideological batons. From Intimate Apparel to Ruined to Las Meninas to her recent Broadway success, Sweat, Nottage’s take-no-prisoners approach discomforts as well as entertains. You have to feel. You cannot escape. Ultimately, you will relate to that discomfort somewhere, sometime, in your own life. Squirm. But also laugh out loud. Smile as two lovers embrace, or almost embrace, but can’t because of forces beyond their control. Conflict. The stuff of drama. But these are black faces, brown faces, tan faces. Women you’ve never seen before on stage or on screen except in the shaded light of superficial racial memes.
–tells the story of Jessie, Tracey, Cynthia, three factory workers in an imaginary Pennsylvania town being squeezed as the factory owner downsizes them into oblivion. Three generations of service amounts to nothing as these faithful but naïve employees ,soon discover it’s not their lives, but the owner’s interests that supersede loyalty, hard work and sacrifice. In a cynical twist of fate, the Cynthia, who is black, is promoted to supervisor over her white comrades and subsequently tasked with firing them. Could it be diversity equals white disempowerment? Eat or be eaten, the so called ‘law of the jungle.’ This is all proof to the White working class struggling to maintain a semblance of middle class acceptance that Blacks have been given an undeserved advantage over them through affirmative action. Thanks to the liberal elites, Blacks–and by extension other brown folks–are taking the jobs away from deserving Americans, Average Americans, Real Americans. Make that White Americans. This was not supposed to happen. Suddenly, best friends become bitter enemies blinded by an irrational racism fueled by loss, and a precarious future. Welcome to the Age of Trump. Feeling helpless, the Tracey, Jessie accuse Cynthia of treason as their friendships change in relation to her being a manager over them. Jason begins to strike out taking particular aim at the most vulnerable guy in the room, Oscar, a young Hispanic man, who cleans the bar where most of the action takes place. Oscar’s citizenship is questioned and by analogy, his right to exist in the White man’s space. But Oscar replies, “I was born here.” Tracey’s son Jason, a budding white supremacist, brutally attacks Oscar, justifying his violence with a twisted self-righteous patriotism. Black Chris and White Jason have grown up together, but unlike Jason, Cynthia’s son Chris, has the opportunity to escape the Rust Belt ghetto by going to college, yet he somehow ends up doing jail time, a scenario unfortunately too familiar to Black families across America. Stan, the bartender (but not owner) and former factory worker, tries to mediate the various camps, all of them victims of a system they didn’t design, a zero-sum-game that inevitably leads to trauma and loss.
An American Selfie
Sweat is an American “selfie” revealing anger, frustration and helplessness. It bridges contemporary culture’s split between the analog world of manual labor and a good day’s pay based on old fashioned values and the digital realities of profit trumping conscience, country and concern for the livelihood of workers and their families. Despite the heaviness of the plot, Nottage manages to weave plenty of comic relief in the dialogue. Critics inevitably compared Sweat to August Wilson’s plays dealing with Pittsburgh’s Black working class’ struggles. Some reviewers have pointed to the lack of “lyricism” in Nottage’s dialogue. One reviewer described Nottage’s writing as “cut[ing] close to the bone;” I find the succinct language of Sweat genuinely reflects the hardness depicted in the lives of these 21st century workers, their very lives reflecting a lack of lyricism and hope. This is Nottage’s real genius. Her dialogue is realistic; characters sling violent words at one another when necessary. Nothing extraneous. No sugar coating. There’s no time. The barbarian hordes are beating down the gates of liberty.
American audiences expect a neat ending ensuring us that all will be well. From the Shining City on the Hill, a white wigged, cherry tree chopping, star spangled deus ex machina will fly in on the eagle wings of Manifest Destiny and save our American Dream with His sword of justice for all, and we’ll all be free to pursue happiness one more day. Nottage the Warrior refuses to enter the Disneyesque fantasy. She deliberately disturbs our sensibilities forcing us to figure it out for ourselves. After all, she is just the messenger. The provocative gift she offers leaves some of us in a sweat, like the characters who sweat at work, who sweat out of work, whose lives are filled with sweat. Sweat is the Great American play that reminds us of the continual American struggle between the have-nots and trying-to-haves, deciding whether the American Dream of the 1% would have us dream is reachable by honest loyalty and hard work (i.e. blood, sweat and tears) or whether the dream is rigged.
The Eagle Has Landed in Brooklyn!
I look forward to the day when I can see a play in a major venue named after Ms. Nottage! Imagine, The Lynn Nottage Theater. Sister-Woman’s work is as bold and dangerous as a bald eagle fast descending, talons ready to snatch up its prey, then soar back to its nest high atop a mountain peak, all within a matter of minutes if not seconds. Her plays snatch at our complacency and pierce our misperceptions, waking us from our slumber of safety forcing us to struggle with our thoughts and feelings over what we thought was true versus Truth. She tells it, shows it, leaves us to stew in it with no apologies through protagonists whose points of view have largely been ignored. Like Shakespeare, Ms. Nottages’ themes remain universal. A kind of sociological Twilight Zone where almost nobody escapes intact. Sweat is a cautionary tale, already too late to prevent the inevitable ending in this experimental drama otherwise known as America.
Now, do yourself a favor and go see every play ever written by Lynn Nottage. That goes doubly for all and any aspiring playwrights! If you can’t see it performed, buy the plays and read them!
To learn more about Lynn Nottage, or purchase copies of her plays, please visit: http://www.lynnnottage.com