My idea was to write a series of plays, each of which would take place in another American city. The stories would be specific to those towns, each arising organically out of the character and history of the location. And I would try to tell stories about cities that hadn’t already been represented a lot (which meant avoiding writing about New York, Los Angeles and DC). That was the plan I kicked around.
I didn’t end up consciously following that plan, though I look at my stuff and see I’ve happened to write plays set in Atlanta, the Florida keys, Vermont, Maine, Ohio, Chicago, Westport, CT and Fort Devens, MA. (As well as, yes, New York, Los Angeles and DC, and an outlying play set in post-war Berlin.)
One of the locations I was particularly interested in exploring (but never got around to writing anything about) was Detroit and the areas near it. At the time I was kicking this idea around, I wasn’t aware of any non-musicals set there. I was a little familiar with its culture and history and thought, if I did conscientious research, there would be plenty of fresh possibilities to explore dramatically.
Times have changed. For one thing, Dominique Morisseau has written a trio of plays under the umbrella title of The Detroit Project; one of them, Skeleton Crew, is scheduled to open on Broadway. (I’ve seen two productions of it. It’s a solid piece and I look forward to seeing it a third time.)
And Erika Dickerson-Despenza has taken on nearby Flint, Michigan with her Cullud Wattah at the Public Theater.
The water in the play is colored because it’s polluted – murky liquid poison, unfit to drink or bathe in. The word “collud” is also an ironic modifier; it is the water that the white political elite in Michigan supplies as tap-water to the people of Flint, a city where the majority of the population are people of color and more than 40% of that population live below the poverty line. (The implication is that this is water they somehow deserve.)
Although there are towns around the country experiencing similar disasters because of their contaminated water, Flint is probably the most famous. Accounts of Flint, the parts Governor Rick Snyder (R), General Motors and others in power played in shifting Flint’s clean drinking water to the cheaper but deadly stuff, and the health consequences to the people whose taps have let it into their houses have been the stuff of a stream of journalistic pieces and documentaries. The challenge Dickerson-Despenza faced in writing her play was to add something new.
Mostly she has done this. We don’t see any of the bad guys or any of the public action that was the result of addressing the problem. Her focus is on three generations of Black women sharing a house in the affected area. The story is in part about how, in order to secure short-term economic benefits, Marion, the head of the household, did not act decisively in reaction to a threat she became aware of. When political action to call the authorities to account is initiated, she still refuses to join because she is afraid it will threaten the new job whose salary her household needs. More than a few people have recognized the thematic links to Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
I was constantly held by the play and the performances (particularly by Crystal Dickinson as Marion, who makes the most of the opportunities offered by playing a character at war with herself), but I felt the script fell a little short of its potential in that nothing in the piece surprised me or made me see the situation from a new perspective. It may be that I have seen too many of those PBS documentaries and read too many of those articles.
At no point in my hypothetical project had I thought of writing a play about Reading, Pennsylvania. Lynn Nottage has written two.
A few years back, when I was preparing to interview Nottage for my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing, she gave me a copy of a new play called Sweat she had written on commission for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Sweat was scheduled to open off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2016. She had won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Ruined. When I met her for our conversation, I told her I thought she would be making room on her mantle for a second Pulitzer. She made a little dismissive wave. But I told her I thought her portrait of a town struggling as the industry that was its heartbeat was being shut down had a lot to say about what I thought was happening in the country at the moment, especially the disillusionment among the working class. It opened in New York on November 3, 2016. On Tuesday, November 8, against most predictions and more hopes, Donald Trump was elected president. Some of the press suggested that though the play was written during the Obama administration, it arrived just in time to explain this disaster. And Sweat won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2017.
Clyde’s features a character who committed an appalling act of violence in Sweat. He has served time and come out of jail wearing tattoos speaking of his affiliation with a white supremacist faction inside. He insists he did this to survive. It’s a good thing he is believed because he finds himself surrounded by fellow employees who are all people of color. They are also, like him, ex-cons working for one of the few bosses willing to employ ex-cons. Clyde, herself, is an ex-con (we never learn exactly what she did, but there are hints it was violent). But just because Clyde is willing to give a break to some people who need one is not a signal that she is in any way soft or sentimental. The only times when she isn’t actively abusive to her staff are when she is stopping to catch her breath or offstage.
In fact, one of the things I admire about Clyde’s is that Nottage refuses to succumb to formula and give her title character a speech to appeal to the audience’s sympathy. Clyde is unapologetically, relentlessly mean. We playwrights like to humanize monsters, but sometimes you meet someone who, OK, may nurse a secret wound that makes them a monster, but that doesn’t make them behave as anything less than a monster. And I write this as someone who once worked on an off-Broadway project produced by Roger Ailes. (Ailes once expressed his displeasure with something I had done by saying to me, “Next time you do something like that, I will punch you so hard my fist will go in your face, go down your throat and come out your ass.” I don’t intend to write a play about him. But if I do I promise you there won’t be a Rosebud.)
If Sweat shone a light on the despair simmering in towns like Reading, Clyde’s suggests there is also hope. Some people get second chances, and some will make good use of them. And some dream their version of the American dream, even if it expresses itself as a tantalizing new sandwich. The tour-de-force direction is by Kate Whoriskey and the perfect cast is Uzo Aduba (as Clyde) Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donovan, Reza Salazar and Kara Young, It’s my favorite new American play on Broadway this season.