Presented by Canadian Stage and Studio 180 Theatre
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by David Storch
Set design by Ken MacKenzie
Costume design by Anna Treusch
Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell
Music composition and sound design by Samuel Scott
Projection design by Cameron Davis
Featuring: Christopher Allen, Jhonattan Ardila, Peter N. Bailey, Timothy Dowler-Coltman, Kelli Fox, Allegra Fulton, Ron Lea, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Maurice Dean Wint
At the Berkeley Street Theatre through February 2nd.
Sweat. Don’t let them see you sweat. In a cold sweat. No sweat off my back. We put in a lot of sweat equity. And perhaps the most appropriate expression for our purpose here in reviewing Lynn Nottage’s one word play title that is several emotional notches above mere perspiration: blood, sweat and tears. SWEAT, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017, is about workers on a factory floor who sweat when they do their jobs; as do the remarkable actors who portray these workers on stage.
The history of the American working class in general and organized labor in particular gets an occasional nod of recognition from the stage, on tv and in the movies, although contemporary political rhetoric and popular discourse is much more concerned about the health and aspirations of America’s middle class than it is about organizing the unorganized.
Even the term itself – “working class” – has dropped out of the popular lexicon. You’d hardly know there is a working class in America anymore, how little the term is used. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union density in the private sector has sunk to an all time low of 6.2% (although it is somewhat higher than that among public sector employees.) That is why Lynn Nottage’s very working class conscious play is a bit of an anomaly. It could almost include a subtitle; call it, SWEAT: The State of the Union.
You might look at this pulsating drama as a less philosophical 21st century rejoinder to those 1930s social realist classics of the American canon like Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life (which also won the Pultizer Prize in 1939), or O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (both plays also set in barrooms). Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty also comes to mind. SWEAT is an uber coda to the aforementioned works that jerks us unceremoniously into the hyper realism of the 21st century. It is the era of George W. Bush, the terrorist attacks on New York, the war in Iraq and the resurgence of a new, energized right-wing (some might call it neo-fascist) movement in America.
SWEAT begins with a prologue scene set in 2008, that sees a parole officer (played by Maurice Dean Wint) meeting with two of his recent charges. The first is an angry, alienated white man named Jason (Timothy Dowler-Coltman), who has a swastika tattooed on his forehead. The second is a more amenable young black man named Chris (Christopher Allen) who holds to his Christian faith as a sign of his rehabilitation after eight years of incarceration. We hear that the two seemingly unlike former inmates are actually old friends who coincidentally ran into each other on the street and fell into a warm embrace.
Flashback to the year 2000 in an unnamed bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, the single setting for the rest of SWEAT except for one critical scene. Ken MacKenzie’s dead on re-creation of this watering hole is similar to many one sees along the highways and byways of this storied state, once described by James Carville as liberal in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and “more like Alabama everywhere in between.” MacKenzie’s set blends seamlessly into the natural ambience of Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre, itself a heritage building with an industrial provenance.
On this particular night there is a festive air to the place as Tracey (Kelly Fox), Cynthia (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) and Jessie (Allegra Fulton) have gathered to celebrate Tracey’s birthday. These union sisters know each other well because they have worked together in the factory for many years. There is much laughter, much drinking (way too much for the comatose Jessie) and then more drinking topped up by shots. But the levity soon dies down and the sad business of the evening begins when we see the relationships of the characters begin to develop.
Tracey is Jason’s mother. Cynthia is Chris’s mom. Cynthia is black and both she and her son have aspirations for a better life. Chris wants to enroll in the local community college and Cynthia is looking to apply for an advancement to foreman at the factory where all three women are members of the United Steelworker’s union (USW).
Tracy believes to take a management position would be to sell out her principles. All of her family worked in the mill over the years and all stuck to the union. Like the old slogan chides satirically, “the working class can kiss my ass, I’ve got the foreman’s job!” – workers who eagerly accepted supervisory positions were looked at as opportunists and traitors to their class.
The plot is complicated further by the fact that the factory may very well close down and shift the jobs to a plant in Mexico. They all excoriate the NAFTA agreement (just replaced by the new USMCA agreement) that allows the company to pick up and go whenever and wherever it likes without penalty in pursuit of cheap labor and higher profits.
There is evidence of the company’s machinations floating all over town. Tracey discovers a leaflet being circulated that is written in Spanish. She asks the Columbian bar-back, Oscar (Jhonattan Ardila) to translate it for her. The leaflet says the company is interested in hiring Latino workers at the plant. What it does not say, but what Tracey quickly intuits, is that these workers are being recruited as scabs to work the plant in case of a strike or a lock-out. Oscar allows as how he thinks it’s a good idea because it might enable him to get a part-time gig while keeping his main job at the bar.
When Cynthia announces that she did indeed get the foreman’s job, Tracey injects race as the motivating factor with the implied (but unstated) assertion that affirmative action programs over the years have propelled these kind of hires. Young Jason is further upset because his friend Chris has decided to quit his job and attend community college, as this somehow is seen as a betrayal of their friendship over the years and their bonding on the factory floor.
Tension and conflict build with the arrival of Brucie (Peter N. Bailey), Cynthia’s estranged and unemployed husband who also has an undefined drug problem (a strong nod toward the Oxycontin epidemic here). The most sympathetic character in all of this is Stan, the bar manager (Ron Lea). He is a former Viet Nam war vet who injured himself while working in the factory and who now tries to keep a lid on all of this commotion until the final tragic scene that explains the prologue.
Nottage has provided us with a powerful, fast paced play that portrays the intersections of race, class and gender in a way that we see interrogated with more frequency these days. A minor quibble of mine might question the setting of the action in Stan’s working class bar, in Reading, Pennsylvania.
The playwright reveals in her program notes that her research began 2 1/2 years before she started to write. She notes that her interaction with middle-aged white members of the Steelworkers union was the entrance point to the issues that frame the play. The fact that Nottage found herself talking to white folks in a bar is not surprising to me. In America today there are two institutions that remain quite segregated; places of worship and barrooms. There are exceptions, but not too many in those small to mid-size Pennsylvania towns. Trust me, I’ve been there. I was born and raised in Centre County, right smack dab in the middle of the state.
At the conclusion of Waiting for Lefty, the taxi cab drivers are informed that their union leader has been murdered.
“They found Lefty. Behind the cow barn with a bullet in his head.”
The drivers are at once galvanized as one body, united with fists pumping the air shouting, “Strike! Strike! Strike!” Critics of the day noted that some audience members were so moved that they joined the actors (who were embedded in and around them throughout the theatre) as the lights faded to black. Whether or not the taxi drivers prevailed in their demands for better working conditions is left hanging in the rhetorical air. Waiting for Lefty premiered in 1935. Today the presence of UBER and Lyft and the de-regulation of the cab industry in general has pretty much dispelled any notion of advancement for drivers working in that industry.
SWEAT concludes on a much more somber note. There is no unity, no strike vote or singing of “Solidarity Forever” in the fractionalized union movement of the present. If the 2016 presidential elections taught us anything, it is that many working class people voted against their own class interests and supported Donald Trump in the false hope that he would restore their jobs and “make America great again.” Three and a half years later sees him impeached on charges of obstructing justice and abuse of power. The U.S. Senate is getting ready to vote on whether or not he should be removed from office as I write. Concurrently, the Democrats of Iowa are getting ready to vote in the first of several Democratic state primaries in the long lead up to the November election.
As the actors exit the stage after the curtain call and the houselights come up, the only thing we are left with is an unsettled feeling of foreboding in the pit of one’s stomach. It’s going to take a lot of blood, sweat and tears before the American heartland is able to put its divided house in order.