In 2011, steel industry-centrific Reading, Pennsylvania topped the national census’s poverty list. The city’s residents were battered by the closing down of rust belt industries as companies packed up and moved to countries with lower worker wages, and low-cost steel from China’s government-subsidized plants flooded the market.
Economic inequality and economic insecurity raised their ugly heads, not only in PA, but other industrial states, resulting in a surprise election result as the usual Democratic voters became desperate for scapegoats and easy cures for their woes.
Lynn Nottage, who has been called “as fine a playwright as America has,” started to craft “Sweat” in 2011, just before the height of the national malaise, but not before Reading and similar areas were hit by layoffs, plant closings, and general angst. The playwright honed in on the national problem and succeeded in writing a raw, disturbing and illuminating script that won the 2017 Pulitzer for Drama.
Most of the eight-year story takes place inside and outside a bar in Reading, where the employees of the nearby steel mill hang out.
In the early segments, the bar visitors are in a positive mood. Hours, pay, and working conditions are good. One of the women, an African American, is promoted to a management position and there is general pride in her advancement. Then downsizing and a strike to protect wages takes place. The bartender warns, “You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico.”
As his prophecy becomes reality, as de-industrialization takes place, attitudes of the “friends” change. Inner group squabbles emerge, hatred toward scabs who cross the picket line become strong, as scapegoats for the changing economics are needed, racial and ethnic differences become causes for arguments and physical abuse. Matters get even worse when the plant closes.
The script clearly reveals the frustration of the white blue collar middle class, who, in their desperation to regain self-respect and hope for financial stability, are willing to put aside their respect for truth and start to believe “alternative facts,” to replace logic with acceptance of emotional shim-sham, and accept that they need to make America “white” again as a combination of Hispanics, blacks and Asians have become the majority population. Slogans and insults became their truth and they became Trump voters.
The script is effective, though the first act could lose about ten minutes and not endanger the exposition that leads up to the compelling second act.
The explosive drama is nicely directed by Kate Whoriskey. It is well-paced, the dynamics finely keyed, and the characterizations well-etched.
The acting is top-notch. Lance Coadie Williams (Evan), Khris Davis (Chris), Carlo Albán (Oscar), Michelle Wilson (Cynthia), James Colby (Stan), Alison Wright (Jessie) and John Earl Jelks (Brucie) all create nicely textured and fleshed-out characters.
Will Pullen (left in photo), who epitomizes the angry white male who has lost not only his financial base, but self-respect, excels as the explosive Jason.
Tony nominee for Best Featured Actress in a Play, Johanna Day, effectively creates Tracey into the model for the woman who has lost all as a result of the economic whirlwind that hit Reading and much of the industrial heart of the country.
“Sweat” received two 2017 Tony Award nominations: Best Play and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Capsule judgement: Theater represents the era from which it comes, and “Sweat” clearly and shockingly tells the depressing tale of what went on during the financial downturn of this country and the resulting hysteria and desperation by a group of people who felt they had been disenfranchised by big business, betrayed by their government, and sold out by their union and political leaders. It is an important play which fulfills the educational obligation of the arts. It’s a script that is sure to be produced by many theatres as soon as its Broadway run concludes.