Dramatic

Review: How Lynn Nottage’s ‘Sweat’ Explains Trump’s America

In Lynn Nottage’s ‘Sweat,’ set in a Pennsylvania city, the tragic effects of the economic downturn are explored in a play showing the roots of Trump support.

Joan Marcus

Only a few months have passed, but Sweat not only feels different the second time around, but the audience's response to it feels different, too. But then, so too are the times.

This excellent, highly charged play, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey, was first seen on the New York stage at the Public Theater in November—only four months ago, and already, given its subject matter, it seems very long ago.

For a previous collaboration, Ruined, the women traveled to the Congo; for Sweat, their research took them in 2011 to the city of Reading in Pennsylvania. From speaking to people there, Nottage crafted this play about the effects of decline, unemployment, racism, and a terrible crime on a group of people in an American city.

The the play is set in 2008, and begins with a mystery: just what is the terrible criminal act that has led to Evan (Lance Coadie Williams) and Jason (Will Pullen) spending the last eight years in jail? Both are traumatized by it, with Jason sporting the facial tattoos of a white supremacist gang.

Eight years prior, they worked at the same small-town factory as their moms, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) and Tracey (Johanna Day). After a hard day on the floor, the women, and their best mate from the factory, Jessie (Alison Wright), hang out at a bar managed by Stan (James Colby), who is helped by his barman Oscar (Carlo Albán).

The tensions that explode later—Tracey’s rudeness to Oscar; her slight competitiveness with Cynthia when a managerial comes up; Jason angry with Evan’s plan to go away and study—burn only on a low level at the outset. Mostly, it’s fun and games at the bar (designed and furnished by John Lee Beatty), where the real challenge is ensuring that the permanently paralytic Jessie gets home in one piece.

It is Tracey, who feels she and her white family, denizens of the city and faithful workers at the factory, that is rankled when Oscar reveals advertisements for Spanish-speaking workers have appeared at a local community center.

Then Cynthia, who is black, gets the managerial job, and soon the factory—where Oscar goes to work, crossing the picket line staffed by Tracey and Chris—itself is in danger. The terrible peaking of this anger explodes violently, and tragically, at Stan’s bar.

It is refreshing to hear characters talk about politics as urgently, and realistically, as people are affected by it. Sweat is politics as lived and spoken about on the ground, not as an abstraction, and not as Washington power-game, or a shrieking panel on CNN.

Sweat is the first, properly muscular play of the Trump era, directly addressing the political and cultural bedrock of his presidency: Nottage has already won the 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

In clearer terms than many news broadcasts, Sweat explains the gestation of discontent, mixed with racism and fears over immigration, that led to many perhaps casting their vote for Trump.

The TV in Stan’s bar plays baseball games and news broadcasts, showing the rise of George W. Bush and talk of NAFTA.

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Nottage and Whoriskey did their research for the play in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2011—and so, at its heart, while the play predates Trump the candidate, it shows the cultural weather system that helped shape his winning candidacy.

The friendship of Cynthia and Tracey is the fulcrum of the production. They are close and protective of one another; Tracey particularly so when Brucie (John Earl Jelks), Cynthia’s estranged husband, begs her to take him back.

But both she and her son are furious that Cynthia and Evan would want to better themselves; for Tracey, Cynthia is betraying both friendship and her class. Racism, and what Tracey and Chris feel they are entitled to and what they are being cheated of, becomes an ugly added condiment to the play’s groaning platter of grievance.

The politics of the play, while clear and emphatic, do not supersede the careful drawing of character: Cynthia is not fighting a banner-waving battle against racism, but rather fulfilling her ambition and desire for recognition, of which race, as she herself makes clear, is a vital part.

She mulls how strange it is to work for so many years somewhere, and not know that another world—of management—was so close by. As well as her anger, Nottage threads an absurd and funny never-gonna-happen romance between Stan and Tracey.

While Nottage allows each character to have their say, she also does not allow Tracey and Chris do not mutate into simple hick villains. Tracey’s decline—from humorously wheedling about having to pay her bar tab to drug addiction—is written as empathetically as Cynthia’s own economic and emotional spiral.

It was instructive to watch the audience around me respond to Sweat now, compared to last November.

If back then the conflicts and ugliness the play illustrates explained something of the gestating body politic, today they are stand as a more entrenched symbol of the same.

Given its larger space at Studio 54, the performances are necessarily bigger there. At the performance that I saw Sweat with at the Public, the audience watched in rapt, tightly wound silence; at this bigger, Broadway production, there was audible disgust and anger, and ripples of shock, expressed for the words and actions of Tracey and Chris.

This is also a testament, obviously, to the skills of the performers—all of whom except Wright have stayed with the production from the Public. Williams and Pullen are piercing as bros rent asunder, with Pullen’s ugly aggression particularly menacing. Wright has one speech as Jessie, sober for a moment, about lost dreams—recited airily, but it is anything but.

Colby is excellent as the gravelly and ill-fated voice of common sense, and Albán is notable too as an immigrant character who, in another kind of drama, would try to take a more humble place at the table. But, as Nottage underlines here, why should he? He works as hard as everyone else, and he is not prepared to accept either crude ethnic stereotyping or the economic inevitability of a worse working life than his white American neighbors.

And then there are Wilson and Day, pivoting expertly from warm sisterhood to sad, hostile estrangement. The social and cultural division in Reading, sketched by Sweat, is multiple and irreconcilable, and echoes through the years.

If there is anything missing from the play it is something between these two women after the tragic events of 2000 are revealed. We see, in 2008, how events have affected them, but it is strange in the final scenes, to have the men of Sweat reunite to address old, very literal wounds at Stan’s bar. The women of Sweat—for this audience member, the heart of the play—are wrongly absent.

This is a dramatically curious but not fatal choice, and Nottage’s tentative and final underlining of humanity may give some pause for hope—if not for the political era that we are in, then in how the best parts of people may rise to endure and survive it together.

Sweat is at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, NYC. Booking till September 17. Details here.