The writer who foresaw the Trump era

After the election, the mood in the theatre changed. “Suddenly people understood for the first time what the play was about,” Nottage said. The actors could sense it, even as they worried how the mostly liberal audience would respond to these characters. “They felt scared and charged at the same [time],” Nottage says. “It’s that strange thing in theatre, when the art suddenly meets the moment.” It subsequently transferred to Broadway for a  2017 run, with the moment still met.

Making art in this moment, in and for the Trump era, can feel paradoxical. In a marked contrast to Obama, America’s sitting president doesn’t read for pleasure and doesn’t write much beyond the characters of Twitter. When that New Yorker piece came out, Nottage had mixed feelings. “I was like, oooh, ‘I don’t want it only tied to Trump.’ It felt like it was polluting the artwork,” she says.

In 2018, Sweat went on tour in America’s Rust Belt, visiting 18 cities in five swing states, provoking conversations. It remained and remains uniquely relevant. It also stands as one of the first and finest works to examine ‘white fragility’: the concept coined by author Robin D’Angelo to refer to the difficult relationships that white people have with the notion that they move through the world with privilege, even if they are working class. “It shouldn’t be called Black History Month, it should be called ‘Make White People Feel Guilty Month,’” Jason, Tracey’s son, says in the play.

And since Sweat opened, other significant works have emerged exploring what it means when a culture values white male lives above all others and how brutally this impacts women and communities of colour. In theatre, these works include Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When it Goes Down and Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning. The Trump presidency has also brought new relevance to works written, as Sweat was, during the Obama years, such as Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown and Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. If few are as capacious or anthropologically minded as Sweat, most are as devastating.

Having predicted the result of the last US presidential election, does Nottage have any idea how this one will go? Not when she speaks via Zoom in early October, just after the announcement of the president’s Covid-19 diagnosis. “Who the hell knows how this is going to go?” she says. “I think it’s going to be one for the ages.”

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