Rumble in the Rust Belt: Race, Class, and Gender Mix It Up in an Ailing Factory Town


I am writing this review before an Election Day that’s likely to be a pivotal moment in our history, knowing that it won’t be published till the day after. Consequently, I have no clue as to what our national life will be like as you read it. Those facts are much on my mind, because the play under review, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (at the Public), offers a whole bar menu’s worth of vantage points from which to regard this election and its issues. Happily, it isn’t in any way propagandist, so its effectiveness won’t diminish once we know who our next president is. If anything, it may become more relevant.

Serious plays do that. Their function is not to simplify matters for us but to complicate them — or at least to remind us that the big questions in life always are complicated, a fact that the frenzied campaigning (and the doubly frenzied, often weirdly slanted media coverage) of the past few months has often seemed to ignore.

Nottage, who won a Pulitzer Prize, an Obie, and a boatload of other awards for her devastating Ruined (2008), has shown since her earliest New York productions that she is not a writer who shies away from either the serious dangers or the profound absurdities of political life. Por’knockers (1995) deals with a comically discombobulated team of urban terrorists, while in the 1950s-set Crumbs From the Table of Joy (also 1995), the principal African-American characters are a pious widower fixated on meeting Father Divine, and his sister, a Communist apparently on the lam from the FBI.

Sweat, though, has none of these preposterous cultural collisions. The action takes place in Reading, Pennsylvania, where most of the characters — black and white, older and younger — work at the same industrial plant, and many of their parents and grandparents worked there, too. Though chronically contemptuous of management, Sweat‘s characters see the plant as familial and nurturing. The year is 2000, and in the midst of world economic upheaval wrought by the internet and NAFTA, the plant — with its own mores and mutual support system — would seem a cozy world. But worrisome hints of trouble keep cropping up.

We know from the start that the trouble’s arrived: Sweat opens in 2009, with a parole officer (a performance of startling fierceness by Lance Coadie Williams) alternately interviewing Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davies). Both have recently been released from prison and are having a tough time readjusting. Jason, who is white, sports Aryan Nation tattoos and a sullen manner; Chris, who is black and brighter, flails through griefs and regrets about wrong choices and avoidable disasters.

In the flashbacks to the year 2000 that make up the bulk of the evening, we see what’s ushered them into their disorienting ex-con life. In that cozy past, Chris and Jason were best buddies, like their mothers, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) and Tracie (Johanna Day). All four work at the plant; all four drink a little more than they probably should. Tracie is widowed; Cynthia’s ex-husband, Brucie (John Earl Jelks), has tumbled into drug use since the closing of another local plant where he worked.

Brucie’s worsening situation, like many events in Sweat‘s early scenes, is a harbinger of bad economic times that ultimately afflict all the characters. Nottage takes her time, piling up the details carefully and compassionately; Kate Whoriskey’s direction keeps the action taut without any factitious pressuring. The relatively few slack moments occur because Nottage perceives that, in today’s context, the people rather than the events are the story: This, black or white, is the America that high-tech global capitalism has left behind. That the unhappy souls it contains are diverse, and not just “angry white men,” is the key to what she’s telling us. In fact, only one of the play’s two white male characters, Jason, is at all angry; Stan (James Colby), the barkeep at the local hang where most of the action takes place, has reached a position of relative contentment despite being sidelined years ago by a factory injury.

The action Nottage presents in Sweat has been chronicled before, in plays as well as in countless news stories and analyses. The promotion of one worker to a management position leads to resentment, which becomes open hostility when management’s attempt to roll back union wages inspires a strike, a lockout, and, ultimately, the plant’s shutdown. With painful predictability, differences once easily ignored become glaring, and workers begin venting their anger on one another instead of on corporate decision-makers too distant to target. Easiest of all is to blame the newest arrival, who is like them, only worse off: When Oscar (Carlo Alban), the bar’s busboy, cops a plant job and crosses the picket line, Sweat explodes in a violent climax. Everything goes terribly wrong, and there we are, back at the parole office nine years later.

Sweat calls to mind another recent play, Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, produced last year by the Atlantic Theater, about an all-black workforce in the break room of a Detroit auto plant. But where Morisseau’s play derived its power from its concentrated focus, Sweat, with its multiracial cast of characters and its setting outside the workplace, takes a more expansive view. We see not only deeper into the people’s lives but more widely into the causes of their increasingly lousy situation, which their own immediate problems prevent them from grasping.

The more leisurely pace allows Nottage to give us a fuller sense of the way of life being left behind as America moves beyond its industrial base, and of the human possibilities lost in the transition. Through the powerful performances Whoriskey’s actors build up, you can learn much about where this America’s anger comes from. What happens next in our offstage America is very much up to the real-life counterparts of Sweat‘s characters. It’s the day before Election Day, and I’m holding my breath.

By Lynn Nottage
Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through December 4


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