Lynn Nottage Exposes How Corporate Profits Trump People
by Tom van Nuenen
“Sweat,” the Pulitzer-awarded play by Lynn Nottage, is a powerful examination of the capitalist strategy of divide-and-conquer. Race is pitted against race, and generation against generation in America’s Rust Belt.
On the drive to the spacious, modern Lesher Center for the Arts in leafy Walnut Creek, the highway is clogged with techie commuters in electric cars. But onstage we are greeted by the corrugated metal doors of a steel factory.
The doors open up to reveal a dimly lit, working class bar, complete with mismatched stools and a working tap. This is where most of “Sweat” takes place. The play is based on the lives of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania.
The year is 2000. We hear a speech from presidential candidate Bush Jr., boasting about the booming stock market. Bus boy Oscar (Roman Anthony Gonzalez) is diligently scraping gum from underneath a table. Things are too quiet. Disaster is in the air.
Friends and coworkers Tracey (Lisa Anne Porter), Cynthia (Cathleen Riddley), and Jessie (Maryssa Wanlass), are getting drunk after a day at the steel factory. Cynthia is intelligent and determined. Tracey is outspoken and a bit reckless. Jessie has shown up at the bar in her old prom dress.
The friendship of these middle-aged women is rooted in the steel jobs that gives meaning to their days. They look out for each other when they get too drunk, or when an estranged husband turns up to make amends.
When the women spot a call for replacement workers, they respond with avoidance: “It’s in Spanish, I can’t read it.” But when they find themselves locked out of the factory unless they accept slashed salaries and benefits, their disbelief turns to anger and picket lines.
The factory bosses distribute an ad for replacement workers, sowing division among the friends. They also promote Cynthia to management—highly unlikely for a Black, female factory worker—which aggravates the racism simmering beneath the surface.
Tracey, in a standout role by Porter, represents the desperation and misguided anger of white working-class Americans that would come to define the culture war in American politics.
We hear an older, wiser voice in Robert Parsons’ excellent portrayal of Stan, the bartender. Stan is bitter about his years on the factory floor, but he is also tired, and he does his best to deescalate the conflicts.
But the younger generation, Tracey’s and Cynthia’s sons (Adam KuveNiemann and Eddie Ewell) are dismayed about the bleak prospects their town offers.
None of these workers can face the betrayal. The corporate owners will take their jobs abroad, ignoring their multi-generational loyalty. The puppeteers remain out of view in air-conditioned offices. They hover over the play and over these workers’ destinies.
“SWEAT” foreshadows the rise of racial tensions and conspiracy theories in American politics. It crackles with anger over the erasure of comradery. It’s hard to see the play without glancing around to see if the anger is landing.
When the lights come back on, the affluent Center Rep feels far away from the Rust Belt. But the echoes of pain, hope, and resilience linger in the air. This play is not just about broken friendships. It’s about the enduring spirit of those who refuse to be trampled by outsourcing and heedless profit.
“SWEAT” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Elizabeth Carter, at Center Repertory Company, at Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, California. Info: LesherArtsCenter.org – to April 16, 2023.
Cast: Cathleen Riddley, Lisa Anne Porter, Maryssa Wanlass, Michael J. Asberry, Robert Parsons, David Everett Moore, Roman Anthony Gonzalez, Adam KuveNiemann, and Eddie Ewell.
Banner photo: Adam KuveNiemann, Roman Anthony Gonzalez, Lisa Anne Porter, Eddie Ewell, and Robert Parsons. Photos: Kevin Berne