… losers and losers …
Sweat is not a perfect play but it’s important and by the end has great impact. As this drama unfolds, we witness through the lives of engaging individuals how competition for jobs poisons relationships between ethnic and racial groups and, most poignantly, between friends. The backdrop is the total disregard of industry and “Wall Street” for the individuals who support them.
The story, set in Reading Pennsylvania, once a heavy industry town, moves back and forth between 2000 and 2008. We first meet two anguished young men, an agitated Evan and enraged Jason in tense, separate interrogations with their probation officer – they’ve just been released from jail, and the rest of the play tells us how they got there. Evan is a big, solid-looking Black hoping to find solace in the Bible. Jason is a skinny pale White with a swastika on his sleeve – he’s come out of prison as a White Supremacist. And yet we learn when after their recent release they ran into each other in town, they embraced, a paradox central to the play’s meaning.
Much of the action takes place in a bar when, through flashbacks, when the bar was a hangout for a local factory workers who formed a bar family for one another. Cynthia., Evans’ Black mother and Tracey, Jason’s White mother are specially tight friends in the early years. They share long experience at the assembly line, pride in their well-paid job in the factory their families worked for generations, fatigue, gripes, and pleasure in celebrating birthdays at the bar.
The snake in the garden comes when Management announces an opening in supervisory position, and a willingness to consider Cynthia and Tracey for the job. Off the line and into a supervisory position – what a wonderful promotion for Cynthia or Tracey that would be!
But winners create losers: when one of the two actually wins the job, friendship shatters into a bitter outcome. Early on, the closeness between Cynthia and Tracey seems racially idyllic but as that relationship dissipates, the race war and class war of the world at large are fought out in the microcosm of the bar, with brutal results. It’s not just about Blacks and White’s, Nottage reminds us: the victim count includes Stan, the White manager of the bar who’s an earlier victim of the factory owners’ disregard, and the Puerto Rican cleaner, Oscar. And in the ultimate irony, the “winner” of the competition for the supervisory job turns out to be a loser, too – a tool manipulated by the factory owners who are exporting jobs to Mexico. Assembly line workers are fired and who does it? … well, somebody has to do their dirty work.
A strength of this play is the thoroughgoing examination of the tragic effects on individual lives of the factory system and of Wall Street. The inherently exploitive and non-humanistic character of capitalism and its hand maiden, economic competition, are exemplified through the characters’ many different kinds of wounds and defeats, physical and spiritual: incarceration, drug addiction, alcoholism, family breaks, crippling bodily injuries, disillusionment, obstacles in the path toward worthy goals, and severe bodily injuries. The play is a political critique but one expressed through vivid human lives: the personal tragedies, and small triumphs emerge out of the situations and interactions of the three-dimensional characters with which Nottage populates the bar.
Although the play moves cleverly through time, with the set shifting from the probation office to the bar, the first act feels static. The exposition isn’t well handled: some of the characters give preachy speeches that tell us what we should know and think rather than show us. And the bar fly, Jessie, seems to have no role to play outside of softening what could be an over simple focus on the two mothers, Tracey and Cynthia. The play comes alive in the second act where the varying outcomes unfold and the “lesson” of the outcomes of unbridled economic competition are driven home through what happens to the characters who are most central: Tracey and Cynthia, and to Jason, Chris, Stan, and the rest, who’d once seemed like a family. All of them are accounted for in important ways.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and among some of the major characters, Johanna Day’s Tracy, the White woman with an embittered sense of entitlement, is totally convincing. Michelle Wilson is exciting as the impassioned go-getter, Cynthia, though talky portions of the script sometimes get in the way of her naturalism. Khris Davis is moving as the young Black man with a hopeful future vision. Wiry Will Pullen conveys a sense of risk from the get-go as Jason, the White kid with the scary tattoos. With the set designed by John Lee Beatty, the occasional transitions between the stern venues such as the probation office and the cozy bar have emotional impact.
Lynn Nottage’s earlier play, Ruined (reviewed here) – is also set in a bar, in a tradition that can easily be traced back to Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh. Nottage writes honestly, and in both of these plays, she gives us characters we care about, and then forces us to look at the horrors inflicted on these powerless people we’ve come to love by dehumanized institutions – war in Ruined, and, here, capitalism. She’s not sentimental but still manages to make the plays seem upbeat and just plain enjoyable. She’s honest in what she lays out about the institutions she writes about, but emotionally lets us off the hook. In Sweat, the last line, which can be interpreted in different ways, provides a great deal of relief for our concerns for Cynthia and Tracy, Chris and Jason, and the others.
Sweat not only drives home the grim effects of capitalism and “Wall Street,” but it makes the audience feel good. You’re left with a gratifying the sense that by understanding the truths Nottage lays out – by getting it — you’re now on the side of the angels helping to solve the problems!
As Jake says at the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Sweat plays at Studio 54 on West 54th Street in Manhattan . For more information and tickets, click here.
A play for our time. Many of us theatergoers have no real awareness or sensitivity for those whose employment is at the will of the large corporation. Additionally, many of those employees do not have the skill sets that will allow them to prosper in a changed employment environment. Sweat clarifies this. It underscores the inability of many of these employees to enter a competitive economic model where sweat is not necessarily needed nor advantageous. This is a must-see.