By Karen Isaacs
“Sweat” – Lynn Nottage’s new play that has transferred from off-Broadway is a chilling tale of the plight of working class people. It is a story all too familiar to residents of “the rust belt.”
A family owned industry that has provided good paying jobs with benefits for generations to the working people of a community first tries to force draconian union concessions, then locks out the workers and hires cheaper, non-union replacements, and finally, almost inevitably departs for a foreign location.
So what happens to the people on the plant floor? They, and their parents and grandparents have given their blood and their sweat to the company, making the executives rich and gaining a secure middle class life for themselves.
The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, mostly in the local bar where a number of the workers hang out. But it opens in 2008 in a drab, office like setting with cinder blocks walls. In two separate rooms we meet two young men: Jason and Chris, an African –American. Each is being questioned and talked to by a man, who we realize is their parole officer. Each has just gotten out of jail for an incident in 2000. Somehow these two young men – in their early twenties – know each and were both involved in the incident. Each is having difficulty adjusting to life on the outside and to getting a new start. But Jason has Aryan nation symbols tattooed on his face and neck, while Chris has almost completed his bachelor’s degree.
The play then flashes back to a series of scenes over months of 2000. Over the course of months, we see the all-too-familiar events play out. Three women hang out at the bar, celebrating birthdays and other events: Cynthia is Chris’ mother—she’s hardworking and ambitious, but married to Brucie who has fallen into addiction. Tracey is Jason’s mother; she too is hard-working but has an “attitude.” Jessie, the third friend seems more like a mediator between the two though she does tend to drink way too much. The bartender is Stan, who had worked in the plant until he was injured on the job.
This is a working class bar. People come in after work and the talk mostly is involved with the work. Brucie, Cynthia’s estranged husband, had worked at another plant until the owners demanded concessions, the union went on strike, the workers were locked out, replacements were hired, and now the company refuses to talk with the union, even though it is willing to capitulate.
In the months that follow – the same scene begins at the plant where Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie work. Even Chris and Jason get jobs there; Chris for the summer to make enough money to go to college and Jason sees it as his future.
For them, it seems like a way into middle class. For Oscar, the bar assistant who is Colombian but born in the U.S., it seems like a closed system. To get a job you have to know someone. The jobs tend to go to the families who have spent their lifetime in the plant.
The rumors begin of the plant owners asking for concessions. Then there is an opening for a supervisor which both Cynthia and Tracy apply for. Cynthia gets the job which creates a fracture between the three women. Tracey believes Cynthia was promoted because of her race.
As the rumors flow, machines begin disappearing until the day the employees are locked out. Soon replacements are hired, including Oscar.
Jason reacts with increasing anger until, one night when Oscar comes back to the bar to get his remaining things, violence occurs. Unfortunately, Stan is an unintended victim.
This is why Jason and Chris were in jail.
In the last scenes, we see what has happened to Cynthia, Tracey, Chris, Jason, Oscar and Stan, as well as Jessie.
All have suffered devastating losses.
Director Kate Whoriskey has assembled a terrific ensemble for this play and then directed them with a master’s touch. They work seamlessly as an unit. Johanna Day has, perhaps, the showiest role as Tracey who is outspoken and abrasive. She speaks her mind. Day creates a character who we are both annoyed with and sympathetic towards. Michelle Wilson gives as a Cynthia who is more refined and determined. With that determination, she and her son, Chris (played by Khris Davis) seem cut from the same cloth. You know why Chris is striving to better himself. Will Pullen’s Jason also seems so obviously related to his mother, Tracey. Pullen gives us the angry and impulsive young man whose resentment seems to ooze from every part of him.
James Colby as the bartender, Stan, is the voice of reason while John Earl Jelks as Brucie is the warning of what can and is about to happen. Carlo Albán gives us a sensitive Oscar, the outsider who just wants a piece of the dream.
The set by John Lee Beatty creates the typical neighborhood bar – a little run down – yet a place the workers feel at home. It is bolstered by the lighting by Peter Kaczorowksi, the sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen and the costumes by Jennifer Moeller.
Sweat is a disturbing and moving portrait of working class America today. It is at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street for a limited run. For tickets visit telecharge.