Lynn Nottage began researching the play that became Sweat in 2011. In today’s rapidly changing political landscape, that seems like eons ago. But when it premiered on Broadway in 2016, just five days before the presidential election, Sweat felt as topical as an op-ed column. One prominent critic even called it “the play that explains Trump’s win.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama receives its local premiere this week courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater. It’s set in Reading, Pa., where eight of its nine characters either work, used to work, or want to work for Olstead Steel Tubing. All the action takes place in the neighborhood bar, mostly in 2000. But while these blue-collar characters don’t talk much about politics per se, Sweat’s exploration of issues including race, nativism, deindustrialization and economic insecurity feel like a theatrical primer for any election day of the past few years.
“The play really has its thumb on the pulse of American culture right now,” says Justin Emeka, who directs Sweat for the Public. “It raises questions of how we define what it means to be an American, and who we really invite to participate in the American experience.”
The play centers on three women. Cynthia, Jessie and Tracy are all lifetime residents of Reading (located in Berks County, an hour outside of Philadelphia). They are also long-time Olstead employees; Cynthia and Tracy’s sons work at the mill, too. Stan, the bartender, is a former mill hand.
In one scene, Tracey (played by Pittsburgh-based actor Amy Landis) shares a barbed conversation with bar staffer Oscar (Jerreme Rodriguez), who’s of Colombian descent.
“You guys? Coming over here? You can get a job quicker than --,” she says.
“I was born here,” says Oscar.
“Still, you wasn’t born here, in Berks.”
“Yeah I was.”
“Yeah? Well, my family’s been around here a long time. Since the ’20s, ok? They built the house that I live in. They built this town!”
Another source of conflict between the characters is that Cynthia, who’s African-American, is promoted from the shop floor to a coveted management position, complete with computer, desk – and chair. It's a move that her best friend, Tracey, chalks up to preferential hiring for minorities. (She swears she's not prejudiced, though.)
Tensions rise further when jobs at the mill are threatened – conflicts that eventually erupt into violence.
When Sweat opened at New York’s famed Public Theater before the 2016 presidential election, many saw the play as politically prescient. (Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout was the guy who said it predicted Donald Trump’s victory.) But while some of Sweat’s characters blame the North American Free Trade Agreement for outsourcing of their jobs, the play’s dialogue includes little overt political debate.
“It tackles these issues that we’re dealing with in society but through human relationships,” says Emeka, who just directed a separate production of Sweat, in Philadelphia. “It’s a story about fathers and sons, mothers and sons, best friends, all wrapped up in one play.”
These characters, after all, are facing a lot of challenges. Tracey is a widow. Cynthia (Tracey Conyer Lee) has split from her husband, Brucie (Kevin Mambo, of TV’s Guiding Light and Broadway’s Fela!), who’s out of work and abusing drugs. New York City-based actor Michelle Duffy says her character, Jessie, is too overwhelmed by everyday life to worry about politics.
“She can’t take in much more of the possibility of the plant’s closing down, them losing their jobs, she just won’t believe it,” Duffy says. “As it unspools, it’s a bigger, harsher reality for her, which dives her deeper into the bottle.”
Portraits of contemporary working-class life are rare in theater. But Nottage is known for her socially relevant dramas. Her works include Intimate Apparel, about an African-American lingerie seamstress in 1905 New York, and the Pulitzer-winning Ruined, set amid civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Nottage researched Sweat in Reading, conducting extensive interviews with residents. In the play, she never depicts the people who actually run Oldstead Steel. But audiences might guess that those owners don’t mind that their employees – the characters in Sweat – spend so much time fighting each other, sometimes literally, for jobs and for pride. Emeka notes that for some characters, knowing that someone’s below them is comforting.
“And the minute they feel people underneath them are rising, there can be a real sense of threat that can happen, and there can be violent responses in people,” says Emeka.
Emeka, who teaches at Oberlin College, in Ohio, says the play might nudge viewers to get engaged in a way its characters don’t.
“I really hope that this helps audiences figure out their role in the political process and inspires them to take an active voice in that process,” he says.
Most performances of Sweat will be followed by The Second Round, an informal discussion in the Public’s lobby.