Play focuses on economic upheaval that threatens to tear apart factory workers’ families and friendships in struggling industrial town
A stream of headlines opens each scene in Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” ticking off the hopes and fixations and miseries of the day: Job cuts and presidential squabbles, news of shootings and fires and sports.
And, of course, the weather.
That last detail is telling, because for the people who hang out in the factory-town bar where most of “Sweat” takes place, the news is just part of the climate they reside in — driven by forces beyond their control, left largely unacknowledged and yet holding massive power over their lives.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which is about to receive its area premiere at San Diego Rep, is set in the struggling Rust Belt city of Reading, Penn. The characters in it are friends and neighbors and family members whose lives, and livelihoods, are tied up in the fortunes of a steel-tubing plant that has been the community’s economic center for generations.
And when that source of support is threatened, the unseen forces actually causing the disruption — outsourcing, overseas competition, government policies that deepen economic divides — aren’t the ones the workers turn against.
Instead, they turn against each other.
“There is no enemy you can reach out and grab and beat up,” as “Sweat” cast member Antonio TJ Johnson puts it. “The only people you can grab are those close to you.
“So the people around you, they get attacked. There’s this piece of dynamite, and all of a sudden someone strikes a match and it blows up. And 10 years later you look back and say: ‘What happened?’”
Johnson’s reference to looking back is important, because Nottage bookends the main action of “Sweat” with scenes that take place nearly a decade later, giving a glimpse of the eventual fallout from the frictions that ignite around 2000, when most of the play unfolds.
Nottage began writing “Sweat” about eight years ago after discovering that people around her whom she thought were doing OK financially were actually struggling.
As “Sweat” director and Rep artistic chief Sam Woodhouse says: “She wondered what was going on in the richest country in the world.”
As the idea for the play germinated, the playwright began making regular visits to Reading, which had been identified as the poorest city of its size in the country.
Out of the interviews she conducted and relationships she developed there, Nottage put together the first version of “Sweat,” working with director Kate Whoriskey, her frequent collaborator. After productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and then off-Broadway, in 2017 the piece became Nottage’s first to land on Broadway.
It was not, however, her first to win a Pulitzer (an honor “Sweat” received that same year). In 2009, Nottage’s searing play “Ruined” — set at a bar and brothel in the midst of wrenching civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — also won the prize.
Both plays drew deeply from Nottage and Whoriskey’s on-site research and the real-life experiences of the people they encountered. For “Sweat,” Nottage has said, a key moment came when she met a group of workers in Reading who had been locked out of their steel plant for 93 weeks over a labor dispute.
“So the piece has an authenticity to it,” says Woodhouse. “These are real, flesh-and-blood, hard-working, never-went-to-college, Pennsylvania working-class people, whose story becomes emblematic of what happened in the de-Industrial Revolution of America.
“That’s the term she used for the transformation of a manufacturing economy to an information and service economy. And these people are left behind.”
And while “Sweat” only gets as close to our own time as 2008, around the beginning of the Great Recession, there’s a crucial way it resonates today, Woodhouse adds: “Many people say this is the play that puts onstage the birth of the Trump voter.”
Part of what’s examined in “Sweat” is a kind of pact that once existed between workers and employers in factory towns like Reading, where a solid living wage came to seem a birthright handed down through generations.
In the play, a plant employee named Tracey (played at the Rep by Judy Bauerlein) remembers walking down the town’s then-thriving main avenue with her grandfather when she was a young girl: “It was back when if you worked with your hands people respected you for it. It was a gift.”
For her friend Cynthia (Monique Gaffney), the fact she is black made getting hired at the factory a matter of particular pride, after years of discrimination: “When I started at the plant it was like I was invited into an exclusive club. Not many of us folks worked there. Not us. So, when I put on my jacket, I knew I’d accomplished something. I was set.
“And when I got my union card, you couldn’t tell me anything. Sometimes when I was shopping I would let it slip out of my wallet and onto the counter just so folks could see it. I was that proud of it.”
As it happens, a rupture in the friendship between those two women comes to symbolize the larger fractures between community and big business, as Cynthia is hired as a supervisor and then must carry out the owner’s bidding to impose harsh pay reductions on workers like Tracey.
Battle lines form between families and friends, including Cynthia’s son Chris (Cortez Johnson) and Tracey’s son Jason (Steve Froehlich). Also in the mix are the two women’s longtime pal and factory colleague Jessie (Hannah Logan), Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (Matt Orduña), and the bar hand Oscar (Markuz Rodriguez), who’s treated as an interloper (particularly by Tracey) even though he was born in the United States to a Colombian-American family.
Johnson pops up in the 2008 portion of the play as Evan, a parole officer. Save for his scenes, virtually the whole story transpires in the bar run by former factory worker Stan (Jeffrey Jones), a place that’s central to the workers’ lives.
“It’s the gathering place,” says Woodhouse. “The only other option would be the church, but then you couldn’t have sworn so much.
“Where do you go after work? You go to the bar. There’s this camaraderie. The bartender knows everybody’s drink.” And for better or worse, “Alcohol lubricates the tongue.”
Johnson adds that it’s “the place where you find your friends and enemies.”
Even if sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart.
“The most dangerous thing is the people that you love,” as Johnson puts it of the play. “Over the years, you’ve accepted them, you’ve got a relationship that you think is a good, deep relationship — until something happens.
“Then the relationship is sort of tested. And we see who comes out of that.”
When: In previews. Opens April 24. 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through May 12.
Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Tickets: $25-$69 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 544-1000
Getting to know Nottage
A look at Lynn Nottage’s most well-known works:
“Intimate Apparel”: Nottage’s breakthrough 2003 play tells of the struggles and small victories of a black seamstress in early-1900s New York City. Carlsbad’s New Village Arts Theatre is reviving the piece this fall.
“Crumbs From the Table of Joy": San Diego’s women-centered Moxie Theatre staged a 2014 production of Nottage’s early work about an African-American family in 1950s Brooklyn, and the effect that a politically radical relative has on their circumscribed lives. (See the Union-Tribune review of the Moxie show.)
“Ruined": Nottage’s enormously powerful work about a group of Congolese women’s resilience in the face of war and sexual violence landed off-Broadway in 2009, and won the Pulitzer for drama that year. San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse put up a strong production in 2010. (See the Union-Tribune preview and the review of that staging.)
“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark": Nottage’s 2011 comedy centers on an African-American actress relegated to playing racially stereotyped roles in 1930s Hollywood. While it was recently revived off-Broadway, the play has yet to get a professional staging in San Diego.