By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
As I was sitting at the Public Theater watching Lynn Nottage’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning Sweat, a question kept buzzing around in my brain. When she was writing the play did she have to stop every so often, sink back into her chair and say to no one in particular, “Jesus, I’m good!”?
What an extraordinary play Nottage has written. That assessment won’t surprise anyone who has seen any of her other multi-award winning works (including an earlier Pulitzer). But Sweat is great not just because it’s Nottage at the top of her game, but also because the play is both informed by and comments on the issues currently ripping America in half.
Sweat continues through December 9. Pittsburgh Public Theater, Downtown. 412-316-1600. ppt.org
Though the work has been hailed as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump Era” Nottage spent three years in Reading Pennsylvania while the Great Pumpkin was still making Playmates sign NDAs. Reading is where she’s set the play, and she went to listen to and learn from people who lived the American Dream and then woke into the American nightmare.
Like Pittsburgh, Reading saw the gutting of its industrial base, decimation of its union identity and then avalanche of destitution. Sweat takes place in a local bar where workers from a nearby factory have, for generations, been congregating. Nottage immediately and vividly summons up the characters who’ll pull us through her heartbreaking story. Cynthia and Tracey (one black, one white) have been friends and factory co-workers for a quarter of a century and their sons, Chris and Jason respectively, have grown up as close friends and now coworkers
Joining the women at the bar for birthdays and various celebrations is a friend/coworker Jessie and every so often Cynthia’s estranged (and unwelcome) husband stops in. The bar is managed by Stan, who used to work at the factory but left after a serious injury; his bar-back is Oscar, a young Latino man who dreams of working in the factory.
When we first meet the group their camaraderie and long history of shared experience is readily obvious. But in a flash-forward prologue, we watch as Jason and then Chris meet with a parole officer and understand they’ve been released from prison after a devastating event eight years ago. So what happened?
We begin to find out as the lightness of the early bar scenes morph into something darker. Cynthia and Tracey both apply for a promotion into a management job and when Cynthia gets it, a racial chill settles on their friendship. Then, in an agonizingly relentless march, the owners of the factory move their manufacturing operations to Mexico, bust the union, and hire Reading locals at minimum wage to fill whatever jobs they couldn’t ship out of the country.
Nottage makes scaldingly clear that these people are being shoved head-first into the wood chipper of free market capitalism and as they are being ground down they’ll lash out at anything standing anywhere nearby.
One of Nottage’s most remarkable achievements in her utter lack of sentimentality. A lesser playwright might have gone a nostalgic route and painted the early days – when the factory was providing a middle class standard of living to generations – as a warm, loving time where work was rewarded and everyone was everyone else’s neighbor.
But Nottage makes plain that the factory work was hard, dangerous, the cause of injury and premature death and how people survived that with alcohol and/or drugs. And the racial fault lines which become lava-filled chasms later are evident right from the beginning. Perhaps Nottage’s saddest point is that even the characters who know they’re being manipulated and exploited by an economic and political ruling class are powerless to stop themselves from scrambling for the few crumbs tossed their way. Nottage’s greatest strength is that she manages to giftwrap this whole thing is a brisk, funny, terrifying and almost inhumanely intelligent script.
And, for me, there are few pleasures in life greater than watching a miracle of a play directed with insight and precise and filled with luminous performances.
Director Justin Emeka gives brilliant light and life to Nottage’s big themes and intentions, but with the same skill narrows our focus down to the smallest (but emotionally heaviest) interaction between two people. There’s not a moment of the production when Emeka hasn’t masterfully shaped this story and these people.
At the evening’s end there were, rightly, no single curtain calls; this nine-person cast took that bow together in recognition of the astonishing world they had just collectively created onstage; Monteze Freeland, Patrick Cannon, Ananias J. Dixon, Tracey Conyer Lee, Tony Bingham, Amy Landis, Michelle Duffy, Jerreme Rodriguez and Kevin Mambo. It’s a stunning array of top flight performances, each infused with desperation, a need for connection and the struggle to remain human in a rapacious system working to make humanity the final acquisition.
Michael Schweikardt’s set, with Robert C.T. Steele’s costumes and lights by Sherrice Mojgani add their own artistry to a production already overstuffed with craft and genius.
The world’s a better place because it has Nottage’s Sweat in it.