Sweat


I'm pleased to report on Lynn Nottage's keenly observed play, Sweat, which focuses on blue collar workers in Reading, Pennsylvania. We begin in 2008, with Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis) talking (separately) to a social worker, Evan (Lance Coadie Williams). We then jump back to 2000, when most of the action takes place. In a neighborhood bar, we meet Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), Chris's mother; Tracey (Johanna Day), Jason's mother; Jessie (Miriam Shor), Cynthia and Tracey's colleague; bartender Stan (James Colby); and barback Oscar (Carlo Alban). Chris and Jason figure in the 2000 plot line, as well.

Everyone except Stan and Oscar work at a factory, as is the tradition in their part of town. (Cynthia's ex, Brucie (John Earl Jelks), has also worked in a factory, though a different one from the women and their sons.) It's 2000, and times are getting tough. Factory work is no longer the sure thing it used to be. Times are changing, and these people are just trying to make a living.

It's hard for them, though. For generations they were used to a certain way of life. It's a company town, a town built by the people—literally. These people work with their hands, they make things. As globalization spreads; as immigration increases; as wage inequality becomes worse and worse; as technology makes humans' jobs obsolete their lives change more and more, and they are left without ways to cope or a safety net or an outlet for their despair. And so the despair turns to populist rage.

It is fascinating to watch this in an election year (and so close to this election itself). With Sweat, Nottage (who won a Pulitzer for Ruined) takes a sensitive, non-judgmental look at an oft-misunderstood segment of America. Sweat takes place in Pennsylvania, one of the swingin'est swing states, full of working class people who, especially in this election, are either still undecided or voting for Trump. Through Nottage's fully drawn characters (and Kate Whoriskey's direction and the actors' performances), we see that there isn't something sinister about these people; they are not stupid or low class or deplorable. They are in transition; the world they knew and helped build is changing quickly. They're trying to keep up but they don't like it.

And so we come to understand that their beliefs and stances were developed first hand. It's not that they're rubes who have been hoodwinked by Trump (I mean, maybe some of them have been); rather, they've seen their jobs be taken by people who don't look like them; they've seen trade deals directly affect their jobs; they've seen their dreams slip through their calloused fingers. Trump just gave voice to what was already roiling inside them.

Of course, this isn't an excuse for racism or for the racist, xenophobic reactions to globalization and multiculturalism, but it can help us understand our fellow Americans. The framing scenes in Sweat, those scenes in which Chris and Jason interact with Evan (one in the beginning of each act, and one to conclude the play), are weak, but serve to move us toward an ending that shows we must have compassion for one another if we are truly our brother's keeper. It's not the strongest of endings, but it's acceptable. The meat of the play is the time spent in 2000, and the change in and among the three women. Through them, we see Rosie the Riveter become disillusioned with the system, and gain an appreciation, of sorts, for the voters who aren't "with her."

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