I recently had the opportunity to interview Tony-nominated Michelle Wilson for her role as Cynthia in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” playing at Studio 54 on West 54th Street. “Sweat” is a powerful play that Nottage wrote to bring the plight of the American factory worker into the public eye and heart. The play is nominated for Best Play also, an honor for Nottage. Nottage wanted people to see what factory workers in Readen, Pa. experienced when their factory closed and the jobs were moved to Mexico. Her work takes what we read in newspaper headlines and have no direct connection to, to something tragically real that we can all identify with. Of these displaced factory workers, there’s Cynthia, a Black woman who has been a very close friend to her white co-workers. She is a woman struggling in a bad marriage and dealing with her ambition to move up in the company. Wilson gives a moving, stunning performance in this role. Her character goes through so many emotional ups and downs. Watching her on that stage is a blessing. That’s why it was so wonderful to interview her about her role and this candid, very relevant play. A Q&A follows.
AmNews: How do you feel about being nominated for a Tony for actress in a featured role in a play for your role as Cynthia in “Sweat?”
Wilson: I was completely surprised. I thought our production would be up for Best Play, but I never even dreamed I’d be personally nominated. It’s very gratifying to be nominated with my cast mate Johanna Day. It seems to me we couldn’t have one performance without the other.
AmNews: What about this character do you identify with?
Wilson: I identify with Cynthia’s loyalty and ambition. I’m also unapologetically determined to create a better life for my family.
AmNews: What do you think is the message of Lynn Nottage’s play?
Wilson: I sense she wants to start a national conversation about bearing witness to each other’s pain, and leading with compassion.
AmNews: What is it like to work with Lynn Nottage?
Wilson: Lynn is wicked smart. You are sort of a coal miner of sorts because there are layers and layers of material to mine, and that’s in a single monologue. It’s as thrilling as it is intimidating.
AmNews: Nottage writes great works based on real-life tragedies. What is it like to act in a play that you know people can completely identify with?
Wilson: It feels like the purpose of art. The act of participating in necessary and urgent conversations that we are unable to have on a national level.
AmNews: How would you describe Cynthia? What are her demons? What are her dreams?
Wilson: Lynn has created a three-dimensional Black working-class woman. Cynthia doesn’t lead with her pathologies as is so often the case with working-class characters. Instead, Cynthia is like every one of us trying to do the right things, but ultimately unable to control circumstances.
AmNews: How do you prepare emotionally to do this character with each performance?
Wilson: I just live in each moment. Lynn’s emotional road map is genius, and our director Kate Whorisky and this brilliant cast create a powerful experience for ourselves and the audience every performance.
AmNews: How does this ensemble manage to play so well off each other?
Wilson: Because there is deep love, respect and humor amongst us all. It is a brilliant bunch of actors and human beings.
AmNews: How was it doing the play at The Public Theater and then transitioning it to Broadway?
Wilson: It’s very rare you get to work on a play, close it for a month, and then step back into rehearsal fresh. It was a process oriented actors dream come true.
AmNews: How did you feel when you realized that they were going to stay with the original cast?
Wilson: I had no doubt. Our ensemble had built a bond so profound and honest. I never doubted we wouldn’t all continue except for a cast mate with a prior commitment.
AmNews: What do you want audiences to come away with after they experience “Sweat?”
Wilson: I want them to be more open and compassionate to our neighbors and their experiences across this big and complicated country.
“Sweat” is stunning and Wilson is intense as she takes on the splendid role of Cynthia. This play in one you will want to experience. It is pure brilliance!