Sweat isn’t the kind of play you walk away from feeling good about. The play, which won Lynn Nottage, a black female playwright, a 2017 Pulitzer Prize, follows the lives of a group of workers in the fading factory town of Reading, Pa. The story toggles back and forth between the early and mid-2000’s.
The center of Sweat is the local bar. We see regulars – Tracey and her son Jason; Cynthia and her son, Chris; Jessie, whose husband has recently left her; and all-seeing bartender Stan – as they wrestle with the loss of what little power they have. Save Stan, none of the group have ever worked anywhere other than the plant. Neither did their parents and grandparents–they didn’t have to. Now, things are changing and the powers-that-be are looking overseas, and to immigrants, for people who will work for less and without the expectation of benefits.
“They find it offensive to be on the floor with their Wharton MBA’s,” says Stan, who bartends because his leg was mangled years back in a factory accident. “And the problem is they don’t want to get their feet dirty, their diplomas soiled with sweat… or understand the real cost, the human cost of making their shitty product.”
The workers have tried to fight back. Cynthia’s husband has been on strike and locked out of his plant for months and months — and the only thing it earned him was a nasty drug addiction. They grasp for what tiny illusions of power the plant owners extend them — after decades on the floor, working so hard that her hands are numb for hours when she gets home — Cynthia wins a white collar promotion. She earns a little bit more money, but she is also in the perfect position to tell her friends how stunningly the cards are stacked against them. The plant’s owners know they can’t lose.
In short, they the crew is screwed. Trapped. Is there anyone who can’t sympathize?
The characters in Sweat don’t follow the news explicitly (Jessie notes that it’s stupid to do so) but the audience gets a good sense of the financial storm clouds brewing in this country at this time by way of radio announcements that are played every few scene changes.
“American think tanks report that the booming stock market is widening the income gap between the poorest and richest U.S. families,” intones one announcer. In another: “Three days after a record 617-point drop in the Dow Jones as the tech bubble bursts, DC protesters disrupt the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting”
Even if you aren’t economist, you know that none of this is good news for regular, working people. And things have only gotten worse.
Baltimore looks a lot like Reading. Companies like GM, Bethlehem Steel, and Unilever used to provide stability and hope for thousands of people in and around the city. Some Baltimore bars, just as comfortable and lived-in as the one where the characters in the play gather, still open in the mornings, a holdover from when they served overnight shift workers. But everything has changed.
Donald Trump’s ascendency to the presidency seemed to set off a free-for-all among this country’s wealthy rulers. It’s a great time to be rich – but it sucks for everyone else. Look at Republicans’ latest tax bill, shoved through Congress. Look at Jeff Bezos and Amazon. In Baltimore and nationwide, journalists have battled their own labor issues: The Baltimore Sun shut down Baltimore City Paper shortly after writers there unionized.
It feels like we have all lost so much. So you understand when the characters in Sweat seek out sweet relief in new sneakers, or gimlets, or even violence.
Nottage researched for this play like a journalist. She says that she traveled to Redding, and clocked hours interviewing people who lived there about their lives. She spent time in churches, in abandoned factories, in bars, schools, and more. So she is just the woman to write about the pain and loss that accompanies joblessness. She is also just the woman to pick apart the casual, paranoid racism that always accompanies economic loss.
“You Puerto Ricans are burning shit down all over Reading,” older, white Tracey tells Latinx barback Oscar. “Well, I’m Columbian,” he responds. When Cynthia, who is both Black and Tracey’s lifelong friend, is promoted, Tracey whispers to anyone who will listen that Cynthia only got the promotion because she’s black. “And, I betcha they wanted a minority. I’m not prejudiced, but that’s how things are going these days. I got eyes. They get tax breaks or something,” she says.
A play like Sweat doesn’t work unless the actors can relate to each other in a way that feels as comfortable and lived-in as the bar they frequent and in Everyman’s production they do. It can’t hurt that many of the cast members are resident company members, or actors who have performed at Everyman before. Megan Anderson, who plays boozy Jessie, Deborah Hazlett (Tracey), and Dawn Ursula (Cynthia), are believable as friends who drink and laugh together from way back.
Vaughn Ryan Middler and Matthew Ward, who play Chris and Jason respectively, have challenging roles. They are the characters who experience the most sudden losses. They are taxed with portraying young people just on the cusp of adulthood — who know that they have to get their shit together, but are still dazzled by gold chains and motorcycles, too. Their performances, at times, lack subtlety. The young men are portrayed as a series of extremes, which makes them sometimes hard to identify with. That’s especially true for Ward’s character, who starts out the play with a facefull of white supremacist prison tattoos and drops an n-bomb soon after. He needs all the fleshing out he can get.
The play glides the viewer smoothly through the different time periods it spans. A rotating stage takes viewers from a sterile visit in a parole office to the warm inviting bar with ease. Kurt Rhoads, who plays Stan, is great in his role. He is the soul of the play in many ways — our moral compass. So when he is changed at the end, the audience’s last glimpse of him is all the more arresting.
This is the fourth time Everyman has performed one of Nottage’s plays. They put on Intimate Apparel, a story about a Black seamstress, in 2017. It’s not the first time they’ve taken on a work about working class Pennsylvania written by a Black playwright – they did Fences in 2015. It is good, in a blue-collar, majority-black city like Baltimore to see theater companies take on these stories.
“We wanted to get blue hats that said ‘make America great again,’” joked Vincent Lancisi, Everyman’s artistic director, speaking on the play’s opening night. “I want to say to you that the play that we are about to do is not a red play and it’s not a blue play. It’s a red, white, and blue play and I think you know what I mean. She tells the story better than I ever could.”
For all its drunken weirdness (the play opens with an instrumental from rapper Flo-Rida’s ‘Get Low’), violence, fear, and tension — Sweat certainly feels like a play about America to me.
Sweat runs through November 25, 2018 at Everyman Theater.
Tickets to Sweat ($10-65) are on sale now.
Photos courtesy of Everyman Theatre, copyright Clinton B. Photography