Last month, Republicans held a forum on poverty in South Carolina, the next primary state, a signal that some in the GOP don't want to cede the issue of income inequality to the Democrats. House Speaker Paul Ryan began by scolding his fellow Republicans: "We've treated poverty like [it's] potholes that need to be filled up and then we move on."
For sheer symbolism, though, there might have been no better place to hold a poverty forum than Reading. In 2011, Reading earned the dubious distinction of being America's poorest city, with the highest proportion of residents below the poverty line.
Hearing that news, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, an associate professor of theater at Columbia University and a lecturer in playwriting at Yale University, saw the perfect backdrop for her next play. There were too many clues, she says, that "economic stagnation and poverty were reshaping the American narrative." So began a multiyear journey to understand why a once-thriving Pennsylvania steel and manufacturing town had imploded.
The result was the drama Sweat, in which Nottage captures the betrayal workers feel when they've invested decades of their lives at a factory, only to have the company push them out for younger, cheaper labor. These tensions strain relationships among the workers.
"When Lynn first came to Reading," says former Mayor Tom McMahon, "she reminded me of Alexis de Toqueville, the French historian who spent nine months in 1831 traveling around a strange country, listening to people." Nottage and a team of assistants embedded themselves in the community of 88,000, known to outsiders mainly for the name of a long-defunct railroad emblazoned on the Monopoly board and as a onetime magnet for discount shoppers.
Most of the outlets are gone now, having sprouted throughout the rest of the country like windblown spores. Many of the well-paid union jobs have disappeared, too. It's the old story: Companies preferred cheaper workers in right-to-work states or Mexico. And by the time Nottage began listening to whoever would talk - which turned out to be almost everyone - she didn't hear a lot of present tense.
"People spoke almost exclusively in the past," she says, speaking by phone from her home in Brooklyn. "Most sentences began, 'Reading was . . . '
"There was so much frustration. It was incredibly cathartic for people to vent," Nottage explains. "I sat in a circle with a group of steelworkers who had been locked out of their plant for 92 weeks who spoke eloquently about their relationship with Reading and to the metal-tube factory where they worked for 25 to 30 years. They felt marginalized." They used a kind of language Nottage often heard in the African American community.
"Here I was, a woman of color, feeling great empathy toward middle-aged white folks. That really surprised me," Nottage says. That was the moment her play Sweat, which premiered last summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is now at Washington's Arena Stage, began to take root.
"The premise of the play is spot-on," says Dean Showers, president of United Steelworkers Local 6996. He was among the locked-out steelworkers venting in that circle to Nottage. He recently went to Washington to bear witness to a very personal story for him and his fellow steelworkers, unfolding on stage. "The plant tears the most productive machines out [and] ships them to Michigan. We could smell the writing on the wall. It was surreal seeing Lynn's play."
Showers, 61, went to work for the steel plant right out of high school and put in 39 years until that factory pushed him and 53 fellow workers out on the street in March 2011. For nearly five years, more than 30 of them have remained united and dutifully maintain a four-day-a-week picket line outside Hofmann Industries, west of Reading in Sinking Spring.
"Most of us were lucky that we had a working spouse that could make it less painful than it already was," Showers says from the union office. "A lot of us are much worse off than we were in 2011."
The timing - a play about poverty in the nation's capital at the start of an election year - is no accident. There are uncanny echoes on stage of the resentment you hear on the campaign trail about immigrants taking jobs from people whose families go back generations.
"We have history here," says one of the white workers in the play, shut out of his factory job. Referring to a Latino who replaces a locked-out worker, this man asks: "What does he have? A green card?"
"Those resentments are real," Nottage says. "And it's not just Donald Trump stoking them. He's responding to something I heard a lot in Reading from white folks and black folks who needed easy scapegoats to explain their economic plight. I would ask, 'What do you think the real problem is?' and everyone would say, 'Latinos.' Sadly, the economic downturn is pitting poor folks against each other."
Nottage promises a reading/workshop in Reading in the spring. But the play is just the first step of what she calls the Reading Project, which will, later this year, include a multimedia interactive installation she calls Out/Let. The goal, she says, is to create a gathering place - what Reading's outlets once were - "to allow people from all incomes and ethnic groups to share a narrative of life in Reading."
"This is going to engage the child in us so we become this eager and open canvas," says Santo Marabella, professor of management at nearby Moravian College, film commissioner for ReadingFilm and a playwright. Marabella was the first Reading resident to meet with Nottage as she embarked on this project. "She was genuinely curious about this town and wasn't here just to suck the life out of the city for her art, create something and leave us. She's developing a lasting legacy."
Nottage puts it more starkly. "Having established relationships in Reading, I don't want to feel like a carpetbagger who poached stories of poverty and left town."
To echo the final line of Sweat, "that's how it ought to be."