After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, almost every week brought a new book regarding race, or class, or both, many focusing on the plight of the economically forgotten residents in “red” states—such as Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Hochschild. And while those books captured many salient aspects of the slow erosion of dreams in devastated communities, none of them captured as fully nuanced a portrait of their crisis, generations in the making, as Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning play Sweat.
Set in the depressed steel town of Reading, Pennsylvania—for a time the poorest in the nation—Sweat is the culmination of many months of research: Nottage interviewed the residents of Reading, hanging out in their bars, observing their day-to-day reality. Originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for their American Revolution series, Nottage’s Sweat takes place in 2000 and 2008, and debuted a full year before the 2016 election. Yet its clear-eyed portrayal of a factory-town population whose factories are shuttering stirred the New Yorker to label it “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era.”
Now, two years into Trump's presidency and with midterms looming on the horizon, Sweat has become a timely (and timeless) ode to an American Dream-turned-nightmare, and to the struggles of a community poor in options but rich in spirit. As it is, Reading still lives with the real-life impact of the fictionalized events depicted onstage at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater.
Pulling no punches, Sweat, directed by Magic Theatre’s Loretta Greco, begins in 2008 in a stark room where African-American parole officer Evan (Adrian Roberts) is patiently grilling his petulant charge, Jason (David Darrow), his face obscured by a crude mass of neo-nazi tattoos and a very prominent black eye. After dismissing Jason, Evan meets with another agitated ex-con, Chris (Kadeem Ali Harris), who reveals that he’d run into Jason, a figure from his past, and wasn’t prepared for the memories raised by their accidental reunion.
Quickly rolling back in time to get the rest of their story and that of the tight-knit community that raised them, much of Sweat takes place in 2000, in a bar where Stan (Rod Gnapp), himself a former factory worker, presides over the taps. Serving as the sounding board for the floor crew of Olstead’s (a fictional steel-tubing plant inspired by Reading’s real-life Hoffmann Industries), Stan is privy not just to the day-to-day dramas of his regulars, but to an understanding of the economic and political long game that will soon tear their aspirations apart.
The bar set, designed by Andrew Boyce, is detail-perfect, down to the mismatched stools and prepaid phone card billboard, and the equally attentive costuming by Ulises Alcala, lighting by Allen Lee Hughes, projections by Hana S. Kim and sound design by Jake Rodriguez give the production as strong a sense of time and place as the dated slang that punctuates Jason and Chris’ dialogue, and lines about NAFTA and George W. Bush.
As Tracey, Lise Bruneau gives a riveting performance of a woman whose life begins to unravel from the moment she dismisses Stan’s oracular forecast of the future of the factory line. (She also dismisses his flirtatious overtures.) Her bestie, Cynthia (Tonye Patano), serves as the perfect foil for Tracey’s tightly-wound personality. Her onstage manner is more even-keeled, (despite having been recently booked for disorderly conduct “in my own damn house”), and embodies the cautious optimism and determination of a person who’s finally daring to climb the ladder a little higher, a staple of the mythology of an American Dream in which hard work and company loyalty is rewarded and respected. Sarah Nina Hayon as Jesse, the third in their trio, embodies the role of middle-aged barfly, replete with the poignant regrets of a person who let the notion of “possibility” melt away as soon as she began earning a steady paycheck.
Jason and Chris are Tracey and Cynthia’s sons. Through the course of the play, they come to their own brutal understanding of the ways in which their own possibilities have become illusions, occasionally helped in this understanding by Chris' father Brucie (skillfully portrayed by Chiké Johnson), whose own downward spiral has been assisted by his struggles with addiction. Rounding out the storyline and the cast is Oscar (Jed Parsario), a somewhat sullen but ever-watchful Columbian-American busboy who’s been trying for a position at Olstead’s for two years. Blinded by their perceptions of the way things are “supposed” to be, the plant employees can’t accept that he may have just as much claim on the line as they do, even though, like them, he was born in Reading.
Ultimately it’s Oscar’s strategy of biding his time and waiting for opportunity that serves him best, though in a very unexpected way, and the play ends with his words and an act of personal compassion, leaving us to wrestle with the implications of both.
For Sweat’s true strength lies in the vast reservoirs of empathy with which Nottage approaches and reveals each character, be it an ex-con with neo-nazi tattoos to a strike-breaking scab looking for a better paycheck, or a frustrated striker’s display of casual racism to a newly-minted supervisor forced to lock her own son out of the factory where they work together. The harder Nottage pushes her characters into uncomfortable moral positions, the more she allows their raw humanity to shine through.
Importantly, the play leaves the many questions it poses unanswered. How do we overcome those things that divide us to connect to what may unite us? What factors are most to blame for the erosion of the “American Dream?” What dreams can we collectively create to take its place?
As a playwright, Nottage is neither soothsayer nor financial consultant, but a skilled chronicler making visible our collective desires, rage, and shame. With Sweat, she dares us to reconnect to our common ground before it’s too late.
'Sweat' runs through Oct. 21 at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Details here.