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Pulitzer prize winner Lynn Nottage on Trump’s America

The playwright discusses her Broadway plays and what it says about society in the United States today.

Before the US presidential election, Donald Trump‘s campaign focused heavily on minorities and foreigners, with rights groups raising concerns that electing him might legitimise outward racism and physical violence.

Days before the vote, a black church in Mississippi was burned and spray-painted with “Vote Trump” on one of its outside walls. He received widespread criticism for a series of misogynistic, racist and xenophobic remarks, and many Americans have used social media to recount racist attacks that took place following his election win.

Quick facts


  • Since 1999, the total number of hate groups in the US has more than doubled. 
  • FBI statistics show that hate crimes targeting Muslims had already grown by 67 percent between 2014 and 2015.
  • In the first three months following Trump’s election, the SPLC recorded 1,372 bias incidents.
  • Nearly 19 percent of those incidents targeted African Americans.
  • Source: Al Jazeera

President Trump has also chosen advisers and cabinet officials that are facing accusations of racially biased behaviour.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief state strategist, is a controversial right-wing media figure and former Goldman Sachs banker who has regularly been accused of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions served as a United States Senator for Alabama since 1996, but the Senate refused to confirm Sessions as a federal judge in 1986 amid accusations that he had made racially insensitive comments.

Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin made a fortune working for Goldman Sachs and later founded a successful movie production company. He also faces allegations of racial discrimination.

In the middle of this political climax, playwright Lynn Nottage is celebrating her second Pulitzer award for a drama that couldn’t be more timely.

Sweat explores the economic and societal pressures facing working-class America. 

Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, where factories are shipping jobs overseas and local residents are turning on each other to preserve what’s left of their American dream, the drama explores both the issues and the feelings that helped to propel Donald Trump to the US presidency. 

It’s been called “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era”.

But despite critical acclaim for her work, it’s taken eight years for Nottage to finally get the chance to stage a production on Broadway.

Lynn Nottage tells us about her journey in what President Trump used to call the forgotten America.

Al Jazeera: Your play, Sweat, was written before the last election, and yet it really captures the mood of working-class America. Those old industrial cities where the jobs have gone, the factories have packed up, the very people who voted for President Trump and so many prognosticators thought he would never win the election. I’m wondering, did you see it coming?

Lynn Nottage: You know, I must say I was as surprised as anyone else that Trump won. I would never anticipate that we’d sort of swing that far to the extreme.

But what I did recognise and certainly what I wrote in Sweat is that people were in pain, and people felt invisible and people feel frustrated and really wanted some sort of shift, philosophically. I didn’t know that the philosophy would lean towards Trump.

‘White panic’ 

Al Jazeera: During the election I heard a lot of comments, people saying on the right that identity politics is what’s wrong with America. This was heard over a lack of pride in white America.

Nottage: For a really long time white privilege has been seen as a superpower, and really diversity is the kryptonite. White folks thought as long as they’re white they can sort of dismiss and look down on those of us who are really part of the fabric of this culture. And I think that there’s been a paradigm shift, because suddenly you have a very insurgent and really robust economy that’s built on people of colour. And we’re growing in this nation.

I think that by 2050, this country will probably be a majority-minority country. 

I think that’s really scary to a lot of folks. And there is what I call white panic: this panic that the culture is going to change so much and that they’re going to lose their identity rather than sort of embracing that it’s a shifting identity … In order to move forward we have to adapt and change.

And I think that’s the part of what’s been beautiful about America. But I think that’s also part of what this white working-class that vote for Trump is reacting to.

Working-class America 

Al Jazeera: You spent two and a half years in Reading researching. How were you as a big-city African-American woman received there?

Nottage: Reading is a small city and it’s interesting because it’s really not that different demographically from New York and the communities that I grew up with. It’s predominantly Latino. I grew up in a predominantly Latino community.

So there are things and aspects of it that felt very familiar to me, and I felt comfortable going into that city, though often I was perceived as an outsider.

Al Jazeera: And how was it interacting with the white working class in particular, though?

Nottage: Well it’s surprising because I thought that there would be some resistance but, I think so few people actually asked them questions, and asked them questions like “How were you feeling and what are you experiencing?” that I found that people really sort of leaned in and responded with a level of honesty that surprised me and that I hadn’t anticipated.

Al Jazeera: So Reading was once home to the Reading Railroad factories textile mills. But they’ve lost more than just jobs, right?

Nottage: I think that for so many Americans, particularly Americans who lived in the Rust Belt and some of these industrial powerhouse cities, work was really tied to identity.

And so when you lose the work, you really lose a sense of who you are. And I think that’s what’s happening in America on a larger scale is that you have a large swath in particular of white Americans who have really been identified with what they did. And when that’s removed, I think folks begin grappling with what our narrative is now. Who are we?

And when I was interviewing people in Reading one of the things that I was really struck by was that people always said “Reading was” – they always spoke of Reading in the past tense. And I find it fascinating that a culture that can’t really see itself in the present tense or future tense tells you something about how we perceive who we are.

In the age of President Trump, can we come together?

Al Jazeera: So Sweat does highlight these divisions in our country, this polarisation. But it ends on a note of hope. Do you have hope in the age of President Trump that we can come together?

Nottage: You know I’m an eternal optimist. And I think sometimes when we are in the midst of a turmoil or a moment like this that we can lean into the pessimism, but I think that sometimes it pulls us together. I think that we may find interesting alliances that are forged because of what’s happening right now and that’s what I look to, you know. I just don’t want to sort of give into the malaise and become complacent.

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