Huntington's "Sweat": Inspired Perspiration

The Cast of "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The Deindustrialization Revolution was quietly, slowly, inexorably on its way when playwright Lynn Nottage began her research for her drama Sweat, the current production mounted by Huntington Theatre Company in its Boston premiere. The play was first presented by Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then produced at Arena Stage in D.C. the same year, then Off-Broadway at New York's Public Theater, before moving to Broadway in 2017 where it was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Intentionally, it's the backstory of a decade prior to the Trump election, with blue-collar types who had been largely forgotten. The playwright spent more than two years interviewing real people for her play in Reading, Pennsylvania in the nation's Rust Belt, where the poverty level was forty percent, making it one of the poorest areas of the country. This makes it of necessity the story of the economy, race relations, immigration, and inevitably, politics. But these form the foundation for society's ills; the play centers on the concrete fate of a group of workers and their way of life, those most affected by an impending crisis. It will devolve into the stark reality of community versus capitalism. As one character puts it, “that's the way things are set up”.

Marianna Bassham, Tyla Abercrumbie & Jennifer Regan in "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 

The story begins as parole officer Evan (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) speaks with two men (separately) set free in 2008. It goes back in time to 2000 to a bar (or more appropriately, joint) in Reading run by former steel plant worker Stan (Guy Van Swearingen) who lost his job when injured at the plant. Tracey (Jennifer Regan), whose family has worked at the Oldstead Steel Mill for generations, feels deserving of a promotion to a newly available management job offering more than just air conditioning and the metaphorical avoidance of sweat. Her son Jason (Shane Kenyon) has just been paroled, as has Chris (Brandon G. Green), son of her coworker and best friend Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), who are black. The bar's regulars include the inebriated Jessie (Marianna Bassham) and Cynthia's deadbeat ex, Brucie (Alvin Keith). It also features bus boy Oscar (Tommy Rivera-Vega), a Colombian-American working for $8 an hour at the bar scraping up chewing gum, but offered a job at the mill at $11 per hour. One theme that's central to the story is how each of the three women in the work get to celebrate their birthdays, and how they all view people like Oscar to be entitled immigrants (though all of the characters, including Oscar, were born in Berks County, Pennsylvania); one of them even questions why there isn't a White History Month.

The Cast of  "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I know from experience it's shame that eats away at us”, one of them warns, and that “you could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico”; as another denizen of the bar puts it, there are buttons that could replace them. Most meet the dire predictions with skepticism and inertia. Even when lay-offs and down-sizing are announced, denial reigns; most can't see it coming. When the company announces plans to move the plan to Mexico, there swiftly follow trade union strikes and a lock-out. Divisions between management and labor begin to divide friends and lead to the exposing of racial tensions. Just the sort of explosion you're likely to see coming, but with a few clever twists.

Jennifer Regan & Tyla Abercumbie in "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It would be hard to imagine a better cast. Regan (who shares in the guilt to come by egging on her son) and Abercrumbie are superb foils, as are their offspring Kenyon and Green. Bassham and Keith make very natural bar flies, overseen by Van Swearingen in a fine turn. Even the more supporting work by Parent and Rivera-Vega is superior acting. Meticulously Directed by Kimberly Senior, at two and a half hours with an intermission, and a large cast, this is in many ways an old-fashioned play, in the good sense. The creative team includes detailed Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson, apt Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, excellent Lighting Design by D. M. Wood, and Sound Design and foreboding Original Music by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, as well as the extraordinarily complex Fight Direction (really Choreography) by Ted Hewlett.

Tyla Abercrumbie & Jennifer Regan in "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

While the time covered by the plot covers just up to a month before Obama's election, it could easily be set in our own time with jobs sent over the border or overseas. Reminiscent of the play Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau (set in a Detroit auto plant) produced two seasons ago by Huntington, it may easily be read as an indictment of our own current travails in the workplaces of America.

As is portrayed by the epilogue of the play, only people take care of people, and this playwright, as she did in Ruined and Intimate Apparel (the latter now being made into an opera) shows once again her uncanny knack for creating realistic dialog and believable crises. She has done her homework and it shows in this powerful piece of writing; though hard to sit through its relentlessly challenging chronology between scenes, it solidifies Nottage's reputation as a playwright at the top of her game.

Unlike the steel mill, this production has been extended through March 1st.

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