“Everything influences playwrights. A playwright who isn’t influenced is never of any use.”
― Arthur Miller
How much did I love Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s new play making its Broadway debut? I first saw it at The Public Theater about three weeks before the election. It made such a profound impact on me as an audience member, playwright, and American citizen that I had to see it again in its new digs at Studio 54. Even though I was fully aware of its gut-wrenching conclusion this second time, I still shed a tear when it arrived. Sweat should be required viewing for anyone living in our republic – it is that important.
The lion’s share of the play takes place at a bar run by Stan (James Colby fully embodying the moral conscience of the play) in Reading, Pennsylvania. This is a working class bar where Bud and Michelob are on tap, and the patrons come to unwind from long days on factory floors and to bitch about management. It move back and forth in time between 2000 and 2008, the advent and the twilight of George W. Bush’s administration. Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis) have done something that has landed them in prison in 2000, and in 2008 they are released. It is not until the end of the play that we find out what that something is. The inciting incident of much of the drama is the decision by management of the local steel mill to move operations to Mexico and play hardball with its employees (demanding severe cuts to pay and pensions, a lock-out when they refuse).
Much has already been said of Nottage’s compassionate and perceptive depiction of the Trump voters. Like Stephen Karam with The Humans, she chronicles the fall of working-class families from economic security into an ever-churning chaos. Nottage centers on the anxieties of those who once were prosperous and have since fallen on hard times. She shines a light on how quickly they can find themselves in poverty, addiction, and shame. We see how anxiety quickly transforms into anger and then into rage. The promises of a return to greatness – though clearly hollow – would have instant appeal.
And if that is all Sweat just did that, it would be a good play for the moment and fade from memory come 2020 (hopefully) or 2024 (not so hopefully). What Nottage has constructed, though, is an American play for the ages, a tragedy of the American dream that would be appreciated by the likes of Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets. “Nostalgia is a disease,” says Stan. Part of what is destroying these workers is their attachment to a way-of-life that, while it had some rewards when times were good, is ultimately destructive. Even before the troubles at the plant start, Chris desires to leave the line and study to become a teacher. For this, he is mocked by his friend Jason. What matters most is tribal loyalty. To want something better is seen as a betrayal – as contempt for the life they all lead. Adding to the stew is the racial mix. Jason and his mother, Tracey (Johanna Day) are white. Chris and his mother, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) are black. So long as times are good and everyone marches to the same drummer: all is well and good. Cynthia, however, is like her son and has ambitions for something other. She applies for a position as a supervisor. When she earns the new job, charges of the hiring process being rigged for affirmative action are inevitable. Outside from the start is Oscar (Carlo Alban), whose family is from Colombia. That he was born here does not halt the charges that he immigrated illegally to take our “jobs”.
The tragedy here is that many of the characters feel that they deserve a job at the plant, even though they hate it. They are limited by a lack of imagination, by shortsightedness, by a sense of entitlement. When the workers are locked out, Oscar is hired as a temporary worker. The $11 an hour he is paid is a windfall, but it is an insult to Tracey. Rather than direct anger at company management, Tracey and Jason train their fire on Oscar exclusively. Again, one of the historic tragedies of American history rears its ugly head: those who should be united against those in positions of power and privilege are divided along racial and ethnic lines. Stan tries to remind his friends of this, but that his voice of wisdom gets silenced points to greater tragedies that will overtake this community.
There are no monsters here, though we may despise many of the characters’ decisions and actions. Nottage’s genius is apparent in that it is possible for, say, Tracey, to be both right and wrong at the same exact moment. Yes, she is right to be angry and frustrated and to want to continue to work (she is no looking for handouts) as she always has. But she is wrong to place the blame on Cynthia and Oscar. She is wrong to think she is entitled to a place further up the line because her people have been in the country longer. She is wrong not to understand Cynthia and Oscar’s history. And, at the end of the day, despite the hostility both verbal and physical, it is Oscar who fares best. Again, it is part and parcel of American history, that more recent arrivals respond best to adversity, adapt, survive, and thrive. That Oscar is the ultimate voice of compassion further highlights those core strengths. It is a dazzling achievement.
Nottage is part of a Renaissance of American playwriting. At the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that playwriting dying as talented writers went to film and television. Plays seemed small, concerned with the inchoate longings of clueless yuppies. Nottage like a number of other playwrights is utilizing the stage to tell powerful, important, and provocative stories that will have enormous impact – both on the personal and political levels – far beyond their initial presentations. Nottage’s Sweat deserves to be in the same conversation with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.
For right now, though, see it. Simply see it.