Sweat, is a word with many connotations. Winston Churchill inspired a nation with his “blood, sweat, and tears” speech during WW II. American males usually associate it with the work ethic of the NFL. But in reality, it identifies the character of America’s working-class. The men and women who take on the toughest of jobs in the factories and in our various industries; sometimes the jobs no one else wants or is willing to do. They are Loyal, hard-working, and proud to be labeled blue-collar workers.
Prolific, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, (“Ruined”, “Intimate Apparel”, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” and others) now tackles the thorny issues that has plagued American business practices for over a hundred years: the divide between the management class and the working class.
“SWEAT”, Ms. Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, directed by Lisa Peterson, examines the erosion of job security, via downsizing, coupled with a feeling of betrayal by some, of unions that always provided their members a safety net and job security. The arc of the play begins in the year 2008 but flashes backward to 2000 then forward again to 2008.
The play centers around a parole officer two ex-convicts, and three women who were childhood friends working in the same factory, and a Greek chorus of one; in the form of the bartender Stan. Bartenders have always been good listeners and their advice, good or bad, is at least, always free. Sometime they have to become, referees in order to calm things down when friends have too much to drink. Also, rumors are rampant in bars and taverns, and a bartender can act as a facilitator; driving the content of the play’s message.
Most of the action in “Sweat” takes place in a bar in Reading Pennsylvania, a city hit hard by a downsizing economy and massive job cuts. Prospects for blue-collar workers are grim as more jobs move overseas. The effects of sweeping technology changes over the last ten years has hit blue-collar workers in the ‘rust belt’ areas of America with the force of a tsunami. It’s not that difficult to draw comparisons between Ms. Nottage’s characters, their situations and their dialogue that echoes those of “Trump supporters” during the 2016 Presidential campaign which still lingers into 2018.
The play begins with parole officer (Kevin T. Carroll) having regularly scheduled meetings with his parolees Jason (Will Hochman) and then with Chris (Grantham Coleman). Now we jump to the bar scene (the play’s structure is very TV episodic-driven) where three factory friends: Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie (Mary Mara, Portia, and Amy Pietz, respectively) have been drinking most of the day by the looks of them. Jessie has passed out on a table. And Tracey and Cynthia are slurring their words and swearing and cursing in the vernacular of the streets complaining about their jobs and their lives.
A cautionary note here: There are well over a ‘hundred f-bombs’ being hurled from the stage. Apparently, normalization of vernacular speech is well on its way in theatres today no matter how off-putting it might be. Whatever happened to the playwright’s best friend – the Thesaurus?
The stock boy Oscar (Peter Mendoza) and Stan, the bartender (Michael O’Keefe) engage the women and respond only when the ladies want more refills. Stan is the only character that realizes what’s at stake for his client-regulars, going so far as to warn them that they all could go sleep one night and wake up to find that their jobs have been moved Mexico. But of course, no one listens. After all, they have the union and their years of loyalty to the company to protect them.
Mr. Coleman is the redeemed ex-con son of Cynthia and ex-con Brucie, (terrifically played by John Earl Jelks who created the role in the New York production) and Chris’ buddy Jason (Will Hochman) the son of Tracey who also frequent the bar, show up at the favorite watering hole of the factory floor workers.
The play also examines the tearing apart of a friendship when Cynthia and Tracey – one black, one white – apply for the same management job. Cynthia gets the position, but soon when the company does indeed move jobs to Mexico, and the trade union goes on strike; the workers become locked out. The management division begins to separate the two friends, and racial tensions separate them further. “Sweat” is an exercise in futility for blue-collar workers and is just one of the current issues that plagues and divides the country on many levels not just job issues and the economy.
In the technical department, the creative team led by director Peterson includes scenic Designer Christopher Barreca, whose tavern/bar design is spectacular and practical even to working beer taps, and props. Emilio Sosa’s costumes are spot on for the denizens of the bar. Lighting by Anne Militello paints the stage in mood inducing moments, while projection design by Yee Eun Nam splashes the walls with a tad too much imagery from newspapers, movies and television. Sometimes, less is better so it doesn’t overwhelm the audience. Kudos, however, to Fight Director Steve Rankin for a most believable ‘rumble in the bar’ sequence. Regarding the pacing and voice modulation levels; let’s just chalk that up to opening night jitters.
As a fan of Ms. Nottage’s work, I was somewhat disappointed with “Sweat”. I was looking for a “Ruined”, or an “Intimate Apparel” experience. The cast, however, is absolutely, flat-out outstanding.
“Sweat”, performs at the Mark Taper Forum and runs through October 7, 2018.