Topical Rust Belt Play 'Sweat' Wins 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama

Joan Marcus
Michelle Wilson (left) and Johanna Day in 'Sweat'

The award marks the second Pulitzer for playwright Lynn Nottage, who previously won in 2009 for 'Ruined,' about women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lynn Nottage's play about Pennsylvania steel town workers struggling against economic hardship, the decline in American manufacturing and the undermining of labor unions, Sweat, has been named the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Pulitzer board described Sweat in a statement as "a nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream."

The prestigious honor not only provides a strategic marketing boost for the recent Broadway transfer but also punches up its status among frontrunners for this year's Tony Award for best play. It marks the second Pulitzer for Nottage, who won the award in 2009 for Ruined, her drama about the brutal treatment of women in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sweat premiered in New York last November at the Public Theater following earlier runs at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage in D.C., which co-commissioned the play. It also won the 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for an English-language work by a woman playwright.

The Public production transferred to Broadway this year, opening March 26 at Studio 54. Drawing on extensive interviews conducted by Nottage and her director Kate Whoriskey in Reading, Pa., the play is an angry hymn of blue-collar despair. While the action takes place between 2000 and 2008, it represents an urgent, compassionate and highly contemporary reflection of the disenfranchised Rust Belt communities that voted Donald Trump into office.

"The play is touching on realities that are still striking a chord now," Nottage told The Hollywood Reporter soon after the Pulitzer win was announced. "There's a large swathe of Americans who are still struggling with economic realities."

Despite that topicality, box office has been somewhat soft on Broadway, grossing only 47 percent of its capacity during the week ending Sunday, in a season generally proving difficult for new plays. Producers clearly will be hoping the Pulitzer helps to move that needle while increasing momentum as Tony season approaches.

"It's always an uphill battle to get people to look beyond musicals and come see a serious drama on Broadway," added Nottage. "Hopefully, this will encourage more people to buy tickets."

The other finalists in the 2017 drama category were visionary writer-performance artist Taylor Mac's epic two-century socio-cultural kaleidoscope, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music; and Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves, an invigorating plunge into the volatile world of female adolescence, viewed through the prism of a high school girls' soccer team.

Also in theater-related Pulitzer news, Hilton Als, drama critic for The New Yorker, won this year's prize for criticism after being shortlisted in 2016. That win ends a long drought for theater critics — the last to win in the Pulitzer category was The New York Times' Walter Kerr, almost 40 years ago in 1978.

Last year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to Hamilton, making the historical blockbuster the ninth musical to take the annual award in its long history, which dates back a full century to 1917.

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