Lynn Nottage was prescient when she began work in 2011 interviewing residents in Reading, Pennsylvania, where there was 40 percent unemployment. Her interviews led to her Pulitzer-prize winning play, Sweat. The play was greeted to great acclaim in The Public Theater and is now playing in Studio 54.
Sweat is a rarity: an intelligent, timely play that is both engrossing and edifying. Directed by Kate Whoriskey, it has us absorbed yet nervous from the onset. Ex-con Jason (Will Pullen) is being questioned by his parole officer. The questioning switches to Chris (Khris Davis.) We don’t know what has brought the two young men to prison but are intrigued immediately. Then the play flashes back eight years.
Although the action mostly occurs in a local bar, the real action occurs in the a factory that has been the mainstay of the town for many years; generations of families have worked there proudly. Only the bartender, Stan (James Colby), a worker in the factory himself until he was injured, realizes that great changes are coming. Although he warns his regulars that their jobs might be outsourced to Mexico, they ignore him. Only Chris seeks to change his life by planning to go to college to become a teacher.
When a management job opens, two lifelong friends, one black woman, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), and one white woman, Tracey (Johanna Day), apply for it. When Cynthia gets the job, the relationship between the two becomes strained. Shortly afterwards, the company begins shipping equipment to Mexico and demanding that the union make drastic concessions about salary and benefits. The workers go on strike. Cynthia wonders if that’s why she was given the job. Now seen as management, her former friends resent and distrust her.
The play deals with racism, economics and outsourcing. Resentment about immigrants becomes an important theme when Oscar, the Hispanic man who works in the bar, takes a job at the factory when the workers strike and is perceived as the problem. Finally and unsurprisingly, the strikers’ anger erupts in violence with innocent people getting hurt. Lives are ruined but the work is no longer there and despite the strike, the company moves the factory. By the end, sadly, the jobs are gone and the characters are all left struggling.
The ensemble cast is excellent, especially Day and Wilson. Their pain and frustration is real, so, too, is their agony at the loss of The American Dream. Once upon a time, a worker was loyal, staying with a company for many years and, in turn, the company showed him or her loyalty. Today this is no longer the case. Is it any wonder that frustrated workers hate the establishment? For those of us who couldn’t fathom how Trump became president, Sweat depicts it for us. It shows the hopelessness that the workers felt and how their anger that led to Donald Trump’s election.