Sweat by Lynn Nottage is something of a very-recent-history play about what the author calls “the de-industrial revolution,” a time at the turn of the 21st century when American factories closed down and blue-collar workers lost their jobs by the thousands to technology or cheap foreign labor. The story follows three steel mill workers and two of their families, and shows how changes in the nation’s economy affect them on a very personal level.
If one major theme in Sweat is economic disintegration, another is solidarity – solidarity in community, family, and work.
During the run of Sweat, the Lyceum Theatre gallery is lined with reproductions of late 20th century union posters and graphics from the collection of archivist Lincoln Cushing, extending the theme of solidarity into the pre-show and post-show space.
The solidarity theme is also baked into the story and staging, as there is no single main protagonist. Sweat features an ensemble cast in an ensemble story. That’s something dramaturg Shelley Orr noted in her pre-show talkback session: two actors in the original Broadway production of Sweat were nominated for Best Supporting Actor Tony awards, but no actor in the show was – or could be – nominated for Best Actor.
Scenic designer John Iacovelli’s main set perfectly integrates and inverts the conflicting themes of disintegration and solidarity. It’s not a factory floor, but instead the workers’ “third place,” their home away from home and neutral territory: a neighborhood bar. The bar set has a solid, workmanlike feel, with a red-brick wall, heavy wood paneling, dimly lit shelves of bronze-colored whiskeys and bourbons, flickering neon beer signs (nothing fancy, just PBR and a regional beer), and a single beer tap pulling what one character describes as flat, warm beer.
This bar set stays largely unchanged while the outside world falls apart unseen: picket lines and promotion boards, factory equipment being removed, workers being locked out and then replaced. But it is here, in this safe place, that the play’s climactic explosion of physical violence occurs. It isn’t until the final scene that the bar changes, leaping forward eight years into a slightly upscale interpretation of a working class bar, with brightly lit shelves of crystalline vodkas and multiple taps drawing local craft beers.
Anne E. McMills’ lighting design conveys an industrially oppressive setting, with shadows of grates and iron bars. Scrolling text is projected on the red-brick wall, setting dates and charting the ups and downs of the outside world, from the stock market and national politics to local outside temperatures.
Elisa Benzoni’s costumes track the general collapse in fortunes, from Jessie’s frilly teal blue going-out dress and Cynthia’s sturdy but neat tan Carhartt work overalls in the first act, to Tracey’s tattered robe and Brucie’s soiled and flattened orange puffer jacket in the second. At the same time, the costumes demonstrate solidarity: Tracey, Jessie, and Cynthia begin dressed at a similar socioeconomic level, but after Cynthia’s promotion her gray suit reflects her new position in management and provides a sharp contrast to Tracey and Jessie in their work clothes.
The characters themselves personify the opposing themes of disintegration and solidarity. It’s important that none of them is lazy or stupid; they’re simply working class people overcome by circumstances beyond their control or understanding. “Being poor is one of the hardest jobs in the world anyone can have,” playwright Lynn Nottage said in an interview with MarketWatch. “To survive from day to day is an epic struggle to find a way to feed yourself, clothe yourself, put a roof over your head. It is the most Herculean path when you have nothing. They’re seen by some people as lazy. But it’s the opposite. It’s an epic struggle to survive.”
Brucie’s addiction-fueled downward spiral foreshadows the decline of all, as he closes the first act with hysterical laughter at the news of a mill fire, crumbling into helpless sobs. Likewise, the young character Chris evokes solidarity, in the resistance he faces trying to break away from the mill floor, and an almost entropic disintegration, in how his path to college twists to land him in prison. And bar manager Stan seems to be the one character with a moderating influence and balanced perspective; he begins the play with compassion, wisdom, and a lame leg (the result of a workplace injury), and ends the play the most damaged of all. It’s hard not to interpret this as symbolic of the decay – or even the death – of reason.
Despite that, my key takeaway is that people shouldn’t let themselves be defined by their work, and that solidarity with family and community are the most important things in life. By the end of Sweat, work solidarity is shattered, friendships are broken, and families are fragmented. Only the community has the connective resilience to care for its people because, as Oscar says in the play’s final words, “that’s what we do.”
Sweat. By Lynn Nottage, directed by Sam Woodhouse, performances by Judy Bauerlein (Tracey), Steve Froehlich (Jason), Monique Gaffney (Cynthia), Jason Heil (Stan), Antonio T.J. Johnson (Evan), Cortez L. Johnson (Chris), Hannah Logan (Jessie), Matt Orduña (Brucie), Markuz Rodriguez (Oscar), San Diego Repertory Theatre, 28 April 2019, Lyceum Stage, Horton Plaza, San Diego, CA.
Fottrell, Quentin. Lynn Nottage on ‘Sweat,’ her Broadway play about factory workers in Trump’s America. MarketWatch, May 4, 2017. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/pulitzer-prize-winning-author-on-sweat-her-broadway-play-about-trumps-america-2017-03-20