Theater

Lynn Nottage’s Next Act

The playwright revisits the town that inspired her award-winning play "Sweat" in "This is Reading"

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Johanna Day as Tracey and Carlo Albán as Oscar in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat at the Public Theater in 2016
Johanna Day as Tracey and Carlo Albán as Oscar in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat at the Public Theater in 2016

Reading, Pennsylvania, isn’t that far from Brooklyn — about two and a half hours by car, and a lot of the drive is pretty. The playwright Lynn Nottage first made the trip back in 2011, after a story in the news caught her attention. The census figures were in, and Reading, which had long ago tied its fortunes to its factories, was the poorest city in the United States. Of its 88,000 people, 41.3 percent were living in poverty.

But numbers and newspaper articles can only tell you so much. When Nottage was working on her Pulitzer Prize–winning play Ruined (200), set amid civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she traveled to Africa to conduct her own interviews with Congolese women. Now she wanted to write a play about Reading, and she spent two years asking people there to tell her their stories.

Those interviews were raw material for Sweat, whose characters, reeling from deindustrialization, have been viewed as emblematic of a significant swath of America, shut off from the nation’s bounty. The play racked up accolades, transferred this spring from the Public Theater to Broadway, then won Nottage a second Pulitzer (and third Obie). In Reading, though, she found a little more that she wanted to achieve.

“We did the play, but it felt like our artistic engagement was not complete,” Nottage explains by phone. “We didn’t want to feel like carpetbaggers: people that sort of go in, take stories and then leave.”

Thus an auxiliary project called “This Is Reading,” which Nottage intends as an optimistic tribute, a kind of repayment for the city’s generosity. A large-scale multimedia installation with live performances featuring local artists, it’s free public art that will take over an elegant old train station in downtown Reading for three weekends in July. It is an unabashed work of artistic activism, and a large part of its goal is to bring the disparate populations of Reading together, reflect the beauty of their city back to them, and stoke some empathy.

“It’s a city that’s really divided, and I know that people don’t like me to say that, but it’s true,” she says, articulating a perspective evident in Sweat, whose characters — black, white, Latino, employed and not — eye one another with increasing clannishness as jobs evaporate. “It’s a city that’s sort of hopelessly fractured along racial and economic lines. When you’re there, you feel it.”

Kate Whoriskey, the director of Sweat, was back in Reading one rainy recent Saturday, crisscrossing the town in a rented Honda, scouting local performers for the installation: a young but disciplined salsa team, a hip-hop dance group for children, a succession of acting hopefuls delivering monologues from the play. She rode shotgun next to Jennifer Moeller, the Sweat costume designer, who had piloted the two of them and “This Is Reading” scenic designer Deb O to Pennsylvania from Brooklyn that morning.

Whoriskey, who is also directing “This Is Reading,” was particularly moved by a stunningly beautiful woman who performed for her in a converted factory, now an arts center. This dancer was someone with talent and aspirations — but also two tiny kids, no money, no car. “She said, ‘I want to be in entertainment, but I’m in Reading, and I can’t get out,’ ” Whoriskey said, her mind turning to artist compensation. “We’ve got to pay everyone decently.”

Moeller had never been to Reading before. The city was nicer than she’d expected, she told Whoriskey, who didn’t dispute its good points. “The problem is that there are no opportunities,” Whoriskey said.

Nottage hadn’t come to town that day, but her filmmaker husband, Tony Gerber, was there, documenting the visit with the help of Andrew Pochan, a Reading artist serving as the project’s production coordinator. Film will be a major component of “This Is Reading.” There will be movement theater pieces, too; a lyrical portrait of the city compiled from drone footage and projected onto the ceiling of the station; and huge portraits of residents projected onto the station’s exterior walls. Inside, Deb O envisions turning a small room into a library stocked with books of blackout poetry: verse created by obscuring all but a chosen handful of words on a page covered with text — in this case, Nottage’s interview transcripts, transformed by local artists.

In those interviews, Nottage said, many of her subjects framed their narratives in the wistful past tense, with the phrase “Reading was.” The installation aims to challenge that nostalgia, looking forward instead. Yet it was important to Nottage and her team that “This Is Reading” occupy a space rooted in the history of the city — a place haunted with memories. A disused factory was one possibility, a grand old shuttered bank on the main drag another, but Franklin Street Station won out. It was built in 1929, with tall, arched windows beneath a high, beamed ceiling, but trains haven’t stopped there since 1981. A $5 million renovation unveiled in 2013 by the local transportation authority has left it gleaming and poised, but empty.

“So what do they use it for now? Weddings?” Moeller asked as she walked in.

“Nothing,” Pochan replied.

To Gerber, who hopes to commandeer the station’s security cameras to feed live video into the installation, the echoey space has the feeling of a stage set — beautiful, but with the layers of time diligently scrubbed away. “It’s pristine,” he said. “But it’s also in some ways too pristine. It doesn’t have the ghosts of what it was. One of our goals, on almost a spiritual level, is to bring the ghosts back.”

Nottage, in her plays, has often been drawn to portraying lives that go mostly unnoticed in the larger culture. Even so, there is something inherently fraught about a bunch of New York artists traveling to a small, impoverished city and presuming, as outsiders, to create a portrait of the people there. Issues of class and geographic privilege inevitably arise.

Yet Nottage views “This Is Reading” as a way of using the tools of art to help people see their own community through one another’s eyes, prompting “a dialogue that might then lead to healing.” She would like to be able to replicate the project’s model elsewhere. “We could be invited to do this in Newburgh, New York, or in Camden, New Jersey, another city that’s struggling with its narrative,” she says.

But first Reading will see itself again presented through Nottage’s lens, this time a in a more documentary form.

“Whenever you sit down and ask someone to share a story, it’s really asking that there be a certain level of trust,” she says. “So I hope that the people of Reading trust that we will take good care of their stories.”