Reading, Pennsylvania was always a factory town—a place where generation after generation grew up working at steel mills, until the financial crisis of the early 2000s changed the only life many of these workers had ever known irrevocably. This is the topic of Sweat, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage that opened in Los Angeles last night at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum.
The story begins in 2008, with two young men who have just gotten out of jail for a crime they committed together, the details of which are not revealed until the end of the play. Chris (Grantham Coleman) is African American and seems to have spent his time in the system in quiet reflection, turning to the Bible in hopes of one day learning to forgive himself. Jason (Will Hochman) is white and took a very different approach, getting white supremacist face tattoos to fit in with a certain element in prison, and he seems further away from remorse. From here, the action goes back in time to the year 2000, when things are just on the brink of changing at the factory that employs not only Jason and Chris, but their mothers and a large portion of the rest of the town.
Most of the story unfolds at a bar, with scenes taking place approximately a month apart, spanning a pivotal year. Footage on the TV helps provide historical context, showing events ranging from the summer Olympics to George W. Bush in the presidential debates. Stan (Michael O’Keefe), a bartender who put in upwards of 20 years at the factory himself before a workplace injury took him out of commission, serves up beer and advice, while Oscar (Peter Mendoza), the Colombian barkeep, quietly observes, himself envious of the solid pay and great benefits offered to factory workers, an industry he has had no luck breaking into.
The central conflict is between Cynthia (Portia) and Tracey (Mary Mara), lifelong best friends who have worked alongside each other on the floor for years. But their dynamic shifts when Cynthia earns a promotion over Tracey, putting her firmly on the other side of the rising tensions between the unionized workers and plant management. To make matters worse, Tracey cannot stop telling anyone who will listen that the reason Cynthia got the job is because she is African American. Rounding out the cast are Evan (Kevin T. Carroll), Chris and Jason’s parole officer, Brucie (John Earl Jelks), Cynthia’s estranged husband who became a drug addict after losing his own job at another factory, and Jessie (Amy Pietz), Cynthia and Tracey’s free-spirited friend who can often be found at the bottom of a bottle.
Directed by Lisa Peterson, Sweat is effective because it’s a small, intimate story and a much larger story all at once. Many in the Los Angeles audience have likely never lived in a town like Reading, and never witnessed firsthand this specific effect of the economic crisis and the catastrophic effects it had on many middle-class blue collar workers, not just financially, but psychologically. As deindustrialisation hits Reading, the only lives these people, many of whom are second or third generation factory workers, have ever known are taken away. The world moved on and left them behind—machines were moved to Mexico, and when the union decided to strike, it did not take long for other people, many of them immigrants, to agree to do the same jobs for less money. To put it simply, these are the people who elected Donald Trump as President. At one point, Stan angrily declares that he has decided not to vote at all in the 2000 election, because in his lifetime he has seen that nothing ever changes or gets better. This is a difficult attitude for many to empathize with, but in order to understand how we got to this current moment in time, we must try.
That’s not to say Sweat is perfect—some scenes feel repetitive, and the running time could easily be cut down by about 20 minutes without losing any of the emotional punch. The climactic event is teased in the opening lines but it takes quite a while to actually get there, by which point you will likely be imagining something even more tragic and shocking than what actually occurs. The performances are generally strong—Coleman is the standout, bringing the most subtle nuance to his character, while the flashier performances of Portia and Mara occasionally fall flat. What Nottage accomplishes well in her script is crafting relatable, specific, three-dimensional characters who represent a population not often seen on stage, with a story that needs to be told.
Sweat runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through October 7th. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.