‘Sweat’ Is a Searing Portrait of Rust Belt Rage

If the fact that Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat is an intensely relevant and well-crafted one wasn’t already relevant from its status as the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner, the fact that I was able to stumble upon two different productions of it playing only a few counties apart in a single weekend is also probably rather telling. Since, regrettably, I can only be in so many places at once, only one of these productions still happens to be runningthe Main Street Players’ version, which will be playing until this May 14but I actually found stopping by Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Theatre and Dance production to be tremendously clarifying as to the piece’s potential and power. 

Of course, I can’t say entirely how much of this effect was due to increased familiarity with the piece the second time around, and I hate to let this matter of comparison turn me against something I otherwise might’ve been relatively favorable to. Another factor may have been the limitations imposed by MSP’s small space, which is truly no fault of their own but made it a tad harder to trace visually the shifting dynamics of the characters, though one still has to praise the ambition of the small company in taking on this complex nine-character piece. 

Because Sweat is, indeed, a play worth being over-ambitious for—one that contains enough humor and poetry to make what is actually a fairly depressing story also a tremendously enjoyable as well as affecting one. Interestingly, the play has also been noted for its insightful portrayal of the rage and loss running rampant in the rust belt that, in 2016, helped turn our nation towards a seemingly impossible Trump victory.

Frank Montoto, Phillip Andrew Santiago, Warren Welds, Jocelyn Lombardo, Laura Argo, Chasity Hart

This ensemble story takes place largely in a neighborhood bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, and centers around a group of characters, almost all of whom either work or once worked at Olstead’s, a steel factory that is both a trap to many of these characters and something that they have come to rely on for identity and security. This is largely because it’s one of the only ways in town someone without an education can have a “good” job, with decent wages and the promise of a substantial pension. It’s a job that Chris, who is saving for college tuition, wants desperately to get away from, and that kindly older bartender Stan is grateful that an injury gave him the chance to finally escape. But it’s also a job that busboy Oscar is envious of, and that Chris’s father Brucie spirals into depression and drug addiction without.

For Jessie, Tracey, and Cynthia, three women in their mid-forties, working the machines on what they call the “floor” is practically all they know—at least until Cynthia is selected for a promotion that takes her away from the sweat and into the air conditioned offices. Not only Tracey is resentful she was passed up given that she’s been working there for 2 more years and has a long family history with the company,  but, Tracey being white and Cynthia being a black woman, that resentment is racially charged. 

As the play progresses, the tension between them only heightens as rumors begin to proliferate that the company will be laying off workers as work is outsourced overseas or they are replaced by cheaper “scabs” willing to cross union lines. The script goes deeply into the complexities of the hard choices facing each character, the devastation as much of their lives’ work is seemingly laid to waste. 

As a credit to Nottage’s writing, not only are the psychological dilemmas explored with nuance but the characters remain extremely sympathetic even as emotions run ever higher. This, in turn, makes it so that, despite the vicious remarks exchanged, the characters can in no way be blamed for the intensity of their emotions, for being hurt as they are or hurting others as they  do.

At least until one character resorts to a devastating act of violence with irreversible consequences, the story is one in which there are no real villains aside from the unseen higher ups at the factory, and the ruthless forces of economic necessity and human despair that pit parent against child, neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. 

As I implied, though it became clear from comparison that the power and poignancy of the play itself seems to overshadow the particular virtues of Main Street Players’ production. Though some performers still managed to stand out for their excellence, most notably Chastity Hart, who brought both incredible comedic timing and the necessary self-possession to her role as Cynthia, others often seemed to be overacting, though, given the play’s high intensity, this wasn’t necessarily detrimental to the story’s overall picture. 

Frank Montoto, Laura Argo, Chasity Hart

But despite these small imperfections, MSP’s Sweat remains an interesting and earnest effort that holds an intriguing amount of potential in the mostly-young talent showcased in the rest of the play’s cast (Phillip Andrew Santiago, Frank Montoto, Jocelyn Lombardo, Garrett Colon, Laura Argo, Kyran Wright, Warren Welds and Sterling Tribue) as well as in that of director Sefanja Richard Galon, who does an admirable job of navigating the play’s fraught emotional landscape.

More important than even that, this play is one that is most definitely worth seeing as an insightful window into a set of experiences and worldviews that, common as they are across America, may be somewhat alien to the typical theatre-going crowd. Instead of trying to figure which one of the play’s many resonant, profound moments I should reference to try and illuminate this point, I’ll just recommend that you catch it yourself before this May 14!

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *