“I’m a white heterosexual woman with a fair amount of good fortune and–as the saying goes–privilege, so it was inconceivable to me.”
So says actress Martha Plimpton, with a note of self-mockery, reflecting on the election of a certain US President.
“I don’t believe he has a chance in hell…Not because I’m in denial–I literally think there is no data of any kind to support that kind of doomsday planning,” was her assessment in an interview back in 2016.
“I was in complete denial,” she corrects herself today.
One person who had a handle on what was going on was writer Lynn Nottage. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Sweat, opened in New York on November 3, 2016, five days before voting. Distilling the current disaffection of the white working class, it was hailed as the piece that explained the arrival of Trump’s America.
It’s now premiering over here at the Donmar Warehouse in London, starring Plimpton, the former Hollywood teen star turned respected theatre actress and activist. And all props to the Donmar for the brave scheduling. It may be the very opposite of festive programming, but it is just the thing for the season of political grimness we find ourselves in.
Plimpton, certainly, has not given herself an easy Christmas.
“I’ve dreaded doing press about this,” she warns me, and as forthright as she is, with her emphatic New York rasp of a voice, she also gives off a certain low-level jitteriness.
Sweat is set in the failing industrial town of Reading, Pennsylvania, during the George W Bush era, among a community of beleaguered steelworkers. Perhaps its most potent character is Plimpton’s factory floor old-timer Tracey.
“She’s some kind of force,” the actress says, and the larger-than-life barfly Tracey quickly turns malign as her livelihood is threatened–notably in her attitude to a black co-worker and friend.
Plimpton says: “She is a racist, and most people are to some degree or other. She just really opts to let it take over.”
The play is a brutal depiction of how those at the top have set those at the bottom against each other in a way that has played into the hands of right-wing populism.
“There are no heroes in this play–and no one really gets out without having done some damage along the line.”
You might call Sweat a state-of-the-nation play, except that it has much relevance to our own current Brexit toxicity. I meet Plimpton on the day of the Conservative Party confidence vote in Theresa May.
“Just to see you guys dealing with this atrocious level of incompetence matched with xenophobia. Same stuff. At least you’re not locking toddlers in cages.”
Plimpton has had three Tony nominations: this role has evidently challenged–and disconcerted–her more than most. Tracey is “certainly not” a victim, she says, but “nor do I see her as a victimizer… But again I dread talking about it too much because it’s very important to not be mustache-twisty about this, to not be villainous…It’s hard, because there are times during rehearsal when I would nauseate myself, but you just have to move past that.
Sweat is also that too-rare-thing: a genuinely working-class story. Plimpton agrees we need more: one of her most popular recent roles was as 39-year-old grandmother Virginia Slims Chance in the US sitcom Raising Hope, about a dysfunctional trailer-park family, which ran from 2010 to 2014.
“I was sorry it was taken off the air. I love that show for a lot of those reasons, because it was about working-class people we don’t see.”
Plimpton herself has never experienced poverty exactly, but she grew up without money, she says, until she started supporting herself through her films. The daughter of actors Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton, she was born into the heart of bohemian New York in 1970–her parents met on the original production of Hair, no less–but was brought up by her mother alone, in a one-bed property in the then-dilapidated Upper West Side, her father having moved back to California.
Although she started performing in theatre professionally aged nine, it was fashion that gave her her big break a few years later, when her tomboyish look landed her a Calvin Klein jeans campaign.
Then the film industry came calling.
“I was always a character actor even in my teens,” she says.
While the likes of Winona Ryder got the leads, she was given the “tomboy, tough girl, sidekick” roles, she says, the most enduring being Stef, the voluminously bespectacled best friend in cult kids’ adventure The Goonies.
Meanwhile, her status as something of an alternative teen idol was bolstered by her relationship with River Phoenix, her co-star in two films, The Mosquito Coast and Running On Empty.
Come the early 1990s, she turned away from the big screen, as Hollywood’s vision of femininity narrowed again.
“Tomboys disappeared from the cultural landscape–females in films got a lot more girly…I just went back to doing more plays because plays are where women can work,” she says.
As for whether opportunities for women on screen have widened again now?
“I don’t know so much about movies but certainly on television, there’s a lot more to do for women in terms of being given interesting, fun, weird, cool roles.” Her own eccentric charisma has been well used on mainstream network shows such as Raising Hope and The Good Wife–for which she won an Emmy for her turn as lawyer Patti Nyholm–in recent years.
Increasingly, she has balanced her work as an actor with full-blooded activism. In 2010 she helped set up the abortion rights organization A is For, “when the Tea Party, these know-nothing ignoramus racists, took over Congress [and reignited] the obsession with banning it.”
Since then, she has continued to campaign hard on the issue, brushing off the abuse of the keyboard warriors and conservative American media; last year, she came under fire from the latter for comments she made on stage at an event in Seattle in which she declared an abortion she had in the city to be her “best one.”
“I’m not ashamed of the fact I’ve had abortions and I’ve talked about it and I think ‘coming out of the closet,’ to take a page from the gay rights movement, is incredibly important…[abortion is] not a depressing thing, it’s a very positive thing, it’s healthcare. We don’t place moral judgements on people who have heart surgery.”
Equally, while she’s only been lightly involved in the #MeToo movement thus far, she will raise her voice from the barricades: a few weeks ago, for example, she called on revered film critic David Edelstein to be fired after he made a joke around director Bernardo Bertolucci’s death, referring to Last Tango In Paris’ infamous butter sequence–now established as having been an assault on actress Maria Schneider. She is, she says, “absolutely” a believer in zero tolerance when it comes to such matters.
“We live in a time where people are getting shot in their synagogues; women are getting murdered in record numbers by their domestic partners; violence against women is the single greatest predictor of white male terrorism. There’s just no room for it any more.”
There’s rhetorical electricity about her controlled rage–you can imagine her ending up somewhere around Washington one day. But for now, there’s a show to get through, and it won’t be easy.
“You’ll see,” she mutters ominously as she leaves, “conserving your voice becomes very important.”
Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 26 January (020 3282 3808)
This article originally appeared in iNews on December 18, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.