About the later, milder work of the firebrand Depression playwright Clifford Odets, some wag commented, “Odets, where is thy sting?”
The Black Rep has found that sting in Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat. She writes about a more recent time when, as Tennessee Williams’ Tom Wingfield says, the huge middle class of America “were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.”
Like Odet’s characters, Nottage’s are working class union members, working in factories in Reading, Pennsylvania, where they and their parents and grandparents have spent their lives. Their parents and grandparents lived the Odets plays, surviving the Depression, fighting for union recognition, bonding in the struggle. Now Nottage’s characters can enjoy the middle-class lifestyle their forebears won.
Most of Nottage’s play takes place in 2000, in a bar where the workers hang out after their shift, enjoying that middle-class lifestyle. Cynthia, Tracey, and Jessie have worked together in the factory since high school. They celebrate birthdays and other festive occasions together in the bar. Cynthia’s son Chris and Tracey’s son Jason are buddies. Cynthia and Chris are Black. Tracey and Jason and Jessie are white.
Race is not a factor. They are united in the union. Then the company advertises a new supervisory position. Cynthia and Tracey both apply for it. Cynthia gets it.
Then the rumors start. The company is moving operations to Mexico. They’re laying workers off. The union threatens a strike. The company locks them out. Cynthia is management now. How much does she know about the company’s plans? How much will she tell her friends? Whose side is she on?
Birthday parties in the bar are not so festive any more.
To make things worse in the bar, Oscar, a young Colombian immigrant hired by Stan the bartender to help him, crosses the picket line to pick up the money scabs can make. This infuriates those on the picket line, including Tracey, Jessie, and especially Jason and Chris. Violently.
Sweat‘s first scene is eight years later, 2008, in a parole office. Both Jason and Chris visit the parole office. The second act’s first scene is also in 2008, in the apartments of Cynthia and Tracey. The factory’s machines and jobs have gone to Mexico. The women have lost that middle-class life and their place in America. The last two scenes are also in 2008, one in the parole office, the last in the bar. Another birthday rounds things off.
Velma Austin and Amy Loui are terrific as Cynthia and Tracey, tight friends, then Tracey bitter at Cynthia’s betrayal and Cynthia desperate to justify what she has done and mend the friendship. Kelly Howe plays Jessie, the third friend, who medicates the pain of her failed marriage in the bar. Brian McKinley as Chris and Franklin Killian as Jason are young men being young, lively, on the move, angry. Blake Anthony Edward’s Stan presides quietly in his bar, keeping the peace. Gregory Almanza, Oscar the young immigrant, very quietly keeps as much out of the way as possible. Don McClendon has the right gravitas for the parole officer. A.C. Smith, Cynthia’s ex, locked out of the plant where he worked, is a broken man, finding comfort where he can, further down the road to despair than the others. The cast, under the thoughtful direction of Ron Himes, do excellent work, individually and as an ensemble.
Tim Jones designed the realistic bar’s interior and facade, with small sets for the parole office and apartments on either side, clearly and appropriately lighted by John Alexander. Hali Liles’ costumes aided the actors in defining their characters. Kareem Deanes designed sound, Meg Brinkley properties, and Paul Steger was the fight choreographer.
With play after play, Lynn Nottage maintains her place as one of the country’s best playwrights. As a New Yorker writer said, Sweat was “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era.” Nottage probes deep and reveals why those union workers in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and Michigan and Wisconsin voted for Trump. And Sweat is splendid theatre.
Photo by Phillip Hamer