The Paramount Theater made a fitting choice for the inaugural play of their new Bold series at the Copley*, which is a small venue across the street from their much larger playhouse in downtown Aurora. Sweat won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its insightful examination of factors that have contributed to the polarization of America. Its characters and themes were very relevant during its Chicago premier at the Goodman in 2019, and (sadly) they feel even more relevant today.
Sweat shifts between 2000 and 2008, two years connected by Presidential elections. Carefully selected news soundbites play during scene transitions to remind us that the plight of the middle-class, blue-collar worker was a tailored speaking point in both elections. George W. Bush and Barack Obama made similar promises with similar results. Sweat is not an indictment of ineffective political policies or dying labor unions or even of the corporate profits behind decisions to move jobs to other countries. Instead, Sweat is a grounded look at the pasts, presents, and futures of workers ill-prepared for a changing workforce.
The primary setting is a bar that serves as an after-work hangout for steel workers at Olstead’s, a steel mill in Reading, Pennsylvania. Six main characters represent three generations of Olstead’s workers. Stan, the bartender, walks with a permanent limp resulting from a terrible accident on the job. Cynthia, Jessie, and Tracey are women in their 40’s—close friends connected by each having worked at Olmstead’s for over 20 years. Chris (Cynthia’s son) and Jason (Tracey’s son) have recently graduated from high school and are starting at Olmstead’s although Chris is looking to move on to college after a summer filled with as many double shifts as he can get.
One of playwright Lynn Nottage’s achievements is crafting so many intricate relationships between the characters while examining each character’s relationship to the mill. The older characters have representative stories to tell. Stan (played by Randy Steinmeyer) remembers how during his two months in the hospital following the accident not one Olstead executive expressed sympathy to him or voiced responsibility for the faulty machine. Cynthia (Shariba Rivers) recalls that she was once so proud to have her union card that she would let it fall out at the grocery store just so others could see it. Tracey (Linda Gillum) recalls going to a bustling downtown as a child and seeing ornamentation crafted by her grandfather—a German immigrant—which helps develop Tracey’s view that people new to the town are invaders. Jessie (Tiffany Bedwell) becomes emotional while recalling her start at Olstead’s at age 19, believing it was a brief stop before traveling to Alaska.
The characters often articulate their understanding that the “rules of the game” are changing. They see other plants similar to Olstead’s reducing costs by cutting jobs, salaries, and pensions. In fact, Cynthia’s husband Brucie (Joshua L. Green) has been locked out of his factory for nearly two years, and at age 49 he has little in the way of options—by the start of the play he has developed a debilitating drug habit. Each character is deeply mistrustful of management, yet they all hold to a multi-generational belief that the hard work of the labor force is what drives the company.
Like the 2019 Goodman production, the Copley boasts a strong ensemble cast and exceptional direction, in this case provided by Andrea J. Diamond. This is the rare ensemble play where no one character or actor outshines any of the others. Nottage’s script is filled with a number of twists and turns, the most essential framed when the play opens with Jason (Gage Wallace) and Chris (Emmanuel K. Jackson) speaking to their parole officer Evan (Bryant Hayes). What events led to their incarceration remains a compelling mystery until the climactic penultimate scene.
The play is aptly titled Sweat representing the manpower needed to operate the industrial factories that are central to America, yet the play is even more about fear. I often do not agree with the characters’ sentiments—particularly not Tracey’s racism or Jessie’s alcoholic escapism or Jason’s deliberate choice to never look beyond the present—but I left Sweat empathizing with their predicaments. While I feel secure in my employment as an English teacher, I have no backup plan. Should my job disappear tomorrow, how would I pay my mortgage? How would I buy food? This universal fear has become a reality for hundreds of thousands of people in America’s rust belt. Sweat does not offer any answers, but it does inspire critical thought and discussion about how many issues dividing America today stem from cycles of change that date back far beyond the year 2000.
Note: the cast also includes Jordan Anthony Arredondo, who plays Oscar.