Metro, Arts, Boston

‘Sweat’ Explores Capitalism’s Impact on Union Workers

The curtains of Huntington Theatre pull back, and headlights directly beam down on a man’s facial tattoos—one of a swastika and the other an iron cross—as he sits with a parole officer on his side. Sweat, a play written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kimberly Senior, confronts disillusionment, racism, and the tribulations of the working class from the moment the play begins. Based on on-the-ground interviews by Nottage of Reading, Pa., residents, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama takes place in the same location from 2000 to 2008—exploring economic stagnation and insecurity as a result of shrinking blue-collar jobs and deindustrialization. 

The play starts in 2008 with Jason (Shane Kenyon)—a black-eyed man with white power tattoos—unresponsive and ill-tempered toward his parole officer Evan (Maurice Emmanuel Parent). Following his meeting with Jason, Evan speaks with the soft-spoken, religiously devout black man Chris (Brandon G. Green) about his first encounter with Jason since Jason and Chris completed their eight-year prison sentence. Leaving the audience guessing as to what landed the two men in jail, the drama flashes back to 2000 in a local bar. 

The bar reveals itself as a blue-collar hangout full of witty banter, self-assertion, and revelations for those who proudly identify as descendents from a family line of factory workers. The cliché bar set makes the audience feel as if they are intimately eavesdropping on the conversations with Stan (Guy Van Swearingen), a former factory worker who had a bad injury on the assembly line and is now a bartender giving cautionary advice to the regulars who come in.

The play focuses on two customers who have been working at the town’s steel-tubing mill together for more than 20 years: Tracey (Jennifer Regan), a stubborn widow and mother of sullen Jason, and her best friend Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), the mother of the driven Chris and wife to the estranged, self-abused Brucie (Alvin Keith). When they were old enough, the two sons joined their moms in the plant. 

After Cynthia moves on and receives a corporate position as a supervisor at the factory, job insecurity at the mill rises as milling machines move to Mexico. Additionally, the recently dismissed Tracey and Jason target Stan’s Colombian-American assistant, Oscar (Tommy Rivera-Vega), who gets hired for their old job since he is willing to work for less than union wages. When the factory starts letting its workers go unexpectedly, it begins to target immigrants who will accept a lower pay than the white workers. This leads the friends to fight over how race and money impact job availability—especially since some of the wheit workers had working at the factory for decades. 

As the play jumps from day to day in 2000, a variety of news sources overwhelm the audience’s ears: news of the presidential race featuring candidate George W. Bush, the weather forecast, and typically a crime or casualty that took place in Reading. This audio that plays during transitions stirs frenzy and addresses that the passage of time has brought the blindsided factory workers a new set of challenges. 

Based on Nottage’s extensive on-the-ground research in Reading, Sweat invokes conversation of the inhumane impacts of globalization and capitalism on union workers and the intrinsic racist sentiment tied to a displaced, white working class. Through the drama, Nottage capitalizes on her idea that xenophobia stems from economic concerns, such as unemployment, carrying political overtones that apply to and resonate with problems in today’s world. The play successfully delves into the impacts of working in a factory—emotionally, financially, and ideologically—as workers navigate their struggles in the era of the North American Free Trade Agreement. 

Sweat will play at Huntington Theatre Company until March 1.

Featured Image Courtesy of The Huntington/T. Charles Erickson

February 10, 2020