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‘Sweat’ Comes Home to Pennsylvania

October 4, 2018 by Alix Rosenfeld
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After taking a year off from producing, Philadelphia Theatre Company is back and is kicking off its season with “Sweat,” the Pulitzer Prize winner by Lynn Nottage. Set in the small steel town of Reading, Penn., the play follows what happens when a group of friends and colleagues hit hard times when the local factory starts downsizing.

“Lynn Nottage really wanted to find a town that could be a microcosm for the American experience,” says director Justin Emeka. “What was happening — what is happening — in Reading can be said to be happening all throughout the nation.”

We sat down with director Justin Emeka to talk about what makes the play so relatable and what it’s like directing the show in Pennsylvania.

Get tickets to “Sweat” at Philadelphia Theatre Company. 

Have you worked on Lynn Nottage’s plays before?
As an actor I’ve been in a Lynn Nottage play. She’s one of my absolute favorite living playwrights. She’s just a master storyteller. She does such a good job of going to a very specific moment in history and telling a story within the context of a very specific moment and shining a light on voices within that period that often aren’t heard. 

“Sweat” is set in Reading, Penn. What is it like to direct the Philadelphia premiere?
It’s exciting, and it’s an honor to bring this story to this community. The piece is so relevant to what’s going on in the world right now. It’s always exciting to work on a piece that speaks so directly to what’s going on in the world right now.

How does the play speak to you?
I’m drawn to pieces that have strong characters and strong relationships – where characters and relationships go through clear and often profound journeys. I grew up across the country in middle America (my father was in the military), so I spent a lot of time in communities like Reading. The characters are really familiar to me. And that’s what exciting about the piece too – that everybody will see the play and recognize a character. So to be able to shine a light on stories that often aren’t put front and center is also really exciting to be a part of for me.

Have you ever directed in Philadelphia?
No, this is the first time. I’m very excited. There’s really a vibrancy amongst the artists in the city. [There’s] the level of New York’s quality but a little bit more sense of community in Philly, because it’s smaller, more intimate.

How does it feel to be working with local Philadelphia artists?
That was one thing that was really important to me, since I’m not from this community. This play is so well-written, and it’s such a wonderful vehicle for actors. So, I wanted to use the play to help the actors of this region shine, to let them sink their teeth in, so that this community could celebrate the talent that’s here. And I’m having a ball in rehearsal – this cast is phenomenal, really dynamite.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the play?
Theater is a tool for transformation. It allows artists to transform. It allows audiences to transform. If you really hit the mark, you can transform somebody’s life just by telling a story. There’s so much frustration and pain right now in the nation, and a lot of healing begins, I believe, by telling stories. And so, in being able to tell this story and being able to let this audience receive this story, I’m hoping that the audience and the artists involved are able to experience their own personal transformation in a way that helps bring us together as a community.