There are two significant acts of violence in Sweat, the brilliant and thought-provoking play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage that has just opened at New York's Public Theater. Both acts of violence take place in 2000, and the play—in a series of well-crafted time-shifting scenes—shows us what led up to them, and what their after-effects are on the play’s characters, eight years later in 2008.
One of these acts of violence is personal, and leads to the incarceration of Chris (Khris Davis) and Jason (Will Pullen), the latter’s face now possessing the tattoos of professing his embrace of white supremacy.
In 2008, the men are being released to the outside world, and both are struggling to make sense of their lives, and how and if to renew their own connection, and make amends for whatever it is they have done.
The other act of violence in Sweat is economic, brutally so, and is leveled against the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, where the play is set, and whose residents Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey interviewed in the course of researching the play.
In 2000, when we first meet Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), Tracey (Johanna Day), and Jessie (Miriam Shor), they are kicking back in the local bar—so evocatively designed by John Lee Beatty you can almost smell the spilled beer—after another hard day at the factory where they work.
They are close friends (and, it turns out, Cynthia and Tracey are mothers to Chris and Jason respectively). The women, played piercingly plausibly by the actors, drink together, console each other over broken marriages, bitch, dance happily together, and their warmth and the warmth of the bar speaks for a certain, hard-scrabble social cohesiveness.
The factory is the town’s glue; its past, present, and future, is tied up with it. The bar, overseen patrician-ly by Stan (James Colby) and the almost-mute presence of Dominican glass collector Oscar (Carlo Albán), is where all the truths are told about love, toil, and exploitation; it’s a place of togetherness, and then—tragically—where everything falls apart.
The play’s overtones with today, and the imminence of a presidential election, is underscored by a television replaying scenes from the elections of 2000: the legacy of the Bush presidency, the real-life impact of NAFTA, and the seeds of support for Donald Trump’s run for the White House are all illustrated in Sweat.
Early on, we see some frays in the group’s bonds: Jessie—the quietest character—is paralytically drunk, and her hopelessness is, we discover, bound up in thwarted dreams of the past, dreams that had nothing to do with the town. Her speech in memory of those dreams is one of the most striking of the piece.
But it is Cynthia and Tracey’s relationship that Nottage comes to focus on. What they share as two working women and mothers is ultimately superseded by what they don’t share. Tracey, who is white, is keen to emphasize her lineage in the town, how generations have worked at the factory: This loyalty and sense of endurance entitles her, she thinks, to an assured security.
Cynthia, who is black, wants something more than factory-work. When a promotion at the factory comes up, Tracey is surprised to hear that Cynthia is going for it: Initially they josh about the idea of Cynthia having ideas above her station. Tracey has worked at the factory for 26 years, she says, to Cynthia’s 24.
But Cynthia gets the job, and suddenly for Tracey the color of Cynthia’s skin marks her out as different. Cynthia herself notes she is suddenly part of another world: One factory can contain very different strata. The friendship of Chris and Jason is similarly tested, when Chris makes clear his desire to leave town to pursue his dream to teach.
Oscar—whose nationality is misidentified through the unthinking ignorance of Tracey—becomes a target of anger when it becomes clear the factory’s owners are advertising for cheaper labor. He wants a better life than menial bar-work; Tracey sees him as undercutting those who have long-held skills, and a right to the jobs.
Suddenly, all the jobs at the factory are in danger, and then the factory is in danger, and so is the town.
The bar, just as suddenly, becomes a battleground over issues of race, class, loyalty, and ambition: Friendship doesn’t stand a chance, despite the calming presence of Stan, who tries in vain to maintain not just order and civility but the sense of collectiveness as emblemized by the bar. But even he, as money stops flowing to his regulars, has to start charging for every drink: Keeping a tab is out.
Through tight, extremely pointed writing, and with the most perfect and moving dashes of lyricism, Nottage unfurls a drama that illustrates clearer than any news report the very plausible discontent and anger that underpins the support for Trump in those towns that today feel so left behind and forgotten.
It illustrates how racism works, on so many levels—not just ugly and in your face, but also subtle and malign, waiting to be activated and galvanized.
Sweat proposes there is always an “other,” like Cynthia or Oscar and workers from other countries, to hate and blame, when the blame is better directed against the venal and power-hungry politicians and business owners whose ambitions and desire for profit or votes endanger communities, and sour the bonds between those who live within them.
Sweat is an overtly political play, yet it offers no blanket condemnation (of Tracey and Jason) or pat answers for us all to just get along. It feels sad, rather than angry. Its characters are beaten down into hatred and mistrust, not energized by it. What is left is damage: for the characters, for towns like Reading, and for workers. This damage reverberates between 2000 and 2008 within the play, and, we assume, beyond.
Most painful to observe, you sense, for Nottage is the brutal decimation of the pride of work and working, and how that pride once ennobled not just the employed but the towns proudly built around factories like the one in Sweat. This isn't romanticized in any way; indeed how quickly that strength and community can be razed is made clear. In its place, as seen in the play, comes aggrieved isolation and discord—which Trump has seemed successfully to have tapped into.
If there is a note of hope fleetingly offered at the end of Sweat, it is that people and towns and bars do continue somehow after seismic events like a factory closure. They are not the same. Some people and places, as we see in Sweat, become scarred, horribly so. But the play tentatively proposes that common human decency can also prevail after a series of life-shattering events. That albeit-bruised humanity is what we have to hold on to, Nottage suggests, when the powerful have so criminally and violently failed those whose support and loyalty they so selfishly, and ruthlessly, rely on. Time will tell if that decency prevails in reality on November 9th.
Sweat runs until Dec. 4 at the Martinson Theater at the Public, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place), New York, NY 10003. Book tickets here.