The play opens in 2008 with Evan (Lance Coadie Williams), a parole officer, questioning the 29-year-old Jason about what he’s up to, now that he’s been released from prison, and then putting the 29-year-old Chris through the same drill. It quickly backs up eight years earlier, when Bush is campaigning for president, and many of the residents of Reading, Pennsylvania–and certainly of the bar, where the play is predominantly set–are working for the Olstead steel mill. They include not only Jason and his sassy mother Tracey, but also Chris and his equally assertive, African-American mother Cynthia.
Also in regular view are the 50-something Stan (James Colby), who used to work at the same factory, but now runs the bar they all frequent, Stan’s younger Colombian-American helper Oscar (Carlo Albán), Chris’s druggie father Brucie, and the terribly alcoholic Jessie, who also works at the factory. Their extremely interrelated lives and pathetic story only becomes more so, as it builds to an explosive climax, and then an even more surprising coda.
Sweat is a classic, “well-made”–or carefully constructed–play, with a focus on the dwindling work for people in the middle of the country, prompting them to install Trump in the White House–to the ongoing dismay of the rest of the world. It couldn’t be more topical even as it helps us understand just exactly what’s been happening to bring us all to this sorry state. It was also based on Nottage’s extensive interviews with many actual residents of Reading, fueling the drama’s impact.
“These were people who felt helpless, who felt like the American dream that they had so deeply invested in had been suddenly ripped away,” Nottage told Michael Schulman, for her recent profile in The New Yorker. “I was sitting with these white men, and I thought, ‘You sound like people of color in America.’”
As Jason asks relatively early on, “How come there’s no White History Month?” Sweat is also about racism even as it’s about the seismic shake-up of the economy that brought the middle class to its knees. “You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico,” says Stan in the year 2000. By 2008, his prophecy has come true, and most of the characters have turned to drugs, for escape and relief, including Jason’s mother Tracey.
Stan, who was the latest of “three generations on the floor” at Olstead, worked there for 28 years, before he suffered a leg injury: “I’m in the hospital for nearly two months… Not one of those Olstead fuckers called to check on me, to say ‘I’m sorry for not fixing the machine.’”
From the very beginning of the performance, when Khris Davis, as Chris, describes running into Jason shortly after they were both released from prison (in 2008)–and “the emotions are right there in my chest–a fist pressing right there”–the ensemble proves as strong and overpowering as the play that contains them. Will Pullen is both fierce and heartbreaking as Jason, a real firecracker of a character who goes off more than once, during the course of the play. The same could be said of Johanna Day as Tracey, who both goads her son into some unfortunate action and joins him as a woebegone drug addict.
Tracey is also hoping, in the play’s earlier time-frame, to get a new management position, which ultimately goes to Cynthia, on whom it becomes incumbent to tell the others that their salaries are going to be drastically cut (by 60 percent), even as the machines start disappearing from the factory. The work is, indeed, moving south of the border, long before Trump’s proposed wall. While she musters Cynthia’s intensity, Michelle Wilson also gains our sympathy, as do John Earl Jelks (as Brucie) and Alison Wright (as Jessie), each of whom is frequently seen passed-out at a table at the bar.
Jessie’s fringe, leather jacket and her floral-patterned, chiffon, hippie-dress, are indicative of just how apt Jennifer Moeller’s costume designs are.
Though it will have some stiff competition from both Oslo and Indecent–two other Off-Broadway plays, which are transferring to the Great White Way late in the season–Sweat seems poised to win the Tony Award for Best New Play.
Sweat (through June 25, 2017)
The Public Theater
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.sweatbroadway.com
Running time: two and a half hours with one intermission