Lynn Nottage: It was heartbreaking for me to sit in circles with steelworkers who had worked in factories — in some cases for 40 years, the same factory. They had assumed that they would retire and have these enormous pension plans and that their sons and daughters would then move into these jobs, realizing that not only would they never be able to access their pension plans and access their factories again, but that that opportunity was gone for the next generation.
I remember sitting in this circle of middle-age white men, you know, this black woman, and I’m asking them questions and seeing them not just cry but weep, weep out of frustration, also weeping because they literally didn’t know what to do next. And what was surprising is because for so long — and forgive me for using this language — but for so long I think that these particular men saw their opportunity — their whiteness — as a superpower, and that as long as they were white men, they’d always have opportunity.
And I think when that opportunity was taken away from them, they became profoundly confused. It’s like, “Wait a minute. What do we do? Who are we?” And I watched when I was sitting in the circle as these men were grappling with a sense of identity — of their identity. It’s like, “Who are we if not this?” and I found that fascinating.