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Playwright Takes on Workers’ Woes in ‘Sweat’

Playwright Lynn Nottage has never been shy to take on the tough subjects, as evidenced in her latest play, “Sweat,” which is now playing at the Arena Stage.

Nottage is perhaps best-known from her play “Ruined,” which told the story of women who were raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now Nottage addresses the hardships of working class African-Americans in the blue-collar community of Reading, Pennsylvania.

“’Sweat’ takes place between 2000 and 2008, and it tells the story of these factory workers in Reading and what happens when the resurgence of NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement, comes into play,” said Trammell Tillman, who plays Chris.

Trammell hails from the DMV, having cut his teeth doing church plays in Largo, Maryland, where he lived for 16 years.

“All of these factory workers’ jobs are at stake,” he said. “We see the structure shift among this community of factory workers — these families and friends. Chris, who is the son of a factory worker, as well as a factory worker himself, is caught in the middle of deciding which route to take, to stick with the union or just leave and pursue his own aspirations.”

Nottage spent two years researching the play, traveling to Reading, which is known to be among the poorest cities in the United States, which was experiencing rising crime and unemployment. She spent time talking to steel workers in Reading who had been locked out of their former factory jobs, which provided the basis for the story of “Sweat.”

As Nottage works with her frequent collaborator, director Kate Whoriskey, this world premiere by the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning artist explores America’s industrial decline as characters reclaim what’s lost, find redemption and redefine themselves in a new century. The work was co-commissioned with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Tillman, who is making his Arena Stage debut, is one of the original cast members and spoke about working the legendary playwright on the original play at Oregon Shakes, as the festival is known colloquially.

“In the summer of 2015 I was doing a project and I got an email from a casting director from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival asking if I was interested in working on a new play by Lynn Nottage, “Sweat,” and of course I said ‘yes.’ After a long, arduous process I was selected to be part of the production at Oregon Shakes. There I was able to work closely with Lynn Nottage and Kate Whoriskey and really tackle this play.”

“I was very strongly familiar with Nottage’s work,” Tillman continued. “When I got the call and started auditioning, I made it a point to become more familiar with her work, her style and invested in reading her plays. I wanted to really understand her style of writing, the way she presents her characters and the crafting of her stories.”

“Lynn’s writing is natural,” Tillman added. “When you are listening to it and engulfed in it, the conversations are more colloquial amongst the people. Lynn has a way of crafting the characters – they are so rich, so natural and just easy that you almost forget that you are doing a play. It’s very conversational.”

In its East Coast premiere, “Sweat” draws on the strength of all of its characters, rather than to focus on one or two main characters. As an ensemble piece, most of the original cast was retained while three new cast members were added for the run at Arena Stage, which begins on Jan. 15 and runs through Feb. 21.

“The genius in Lynn’s writing is that the style defines the subject,” Whoriskey said. “The how defines the what. In writing a play it is customary to ask whose story it is. Usually a single protagonist is identified, but in ‘Sweat’ Lynn decided that the community is the protagonist in an age where unions are collapsing in favor of unbridled capitalism and self-marketing. Lynn changes the way we perceive character. She asks us not to choose a lead to empathize with but to watch individuals as a group going through crisis together.”

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