“Sweat” on Broadway: Setting the Stage for Trump

John Earl Jelks, James Colby, Michelle Wilson, Johanna Day and Alison Wright in Lynn Nottage's Sweat, now on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus.

No play on Broadway addresses the political climate more immediately than Sweat, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lynn Nottage. Anyone still parsing the current president’s electoral-college victory need only spend the two-and-a-half hours that Sweat takes to unfold in order to understand — thoroughly — why some people in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania registered their voters as pro-Trump.

Reading, PA is where Sweat takes place. It unfolds in Reading homes, a probation office, and, largely, at a downscale bar where factory workers spend their hours when not on the assembly line — or, should their factory flee to Mexico — on the welfare line. This is painfully right: In graphic three-dimensional terms, Sweat explains exactly what promise the Trump campaign held for folks like these and for many more like them across the map.

Nottage — who could well win a second Pulitzer with this play — opens Sweat in 2008 with Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis), both just released from prison, haltingly updating officer Evan (Lance Coadie Williams) on their fragile mental states. Part of the disorientation between Jason and Chris, who were once best friends, stems from a sometime-ago incident. The rest of the play — which next switches back in time to 2000 — explores the cause of their rift.

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Jason and Chris are the sons of Tracey (Johanna Day) and Cynthia (Michelle Wilson); together with a friend named Jessie (Alison Wright), they are factory coworkers. They’re at an exuberant celebration for Cynthia’s birthday — as each do for the other every year. They’re at the bar where Stan (James Colby), a former factory worker, now injured from an accident, bartends, assisted by Oscar (Carlo Albán), who is Puerto Rican. The only drawback: Brucie (John Earl Jenks), Cynthia’s estranged husband. who was laid off from his position at the factory.

Brucie is the first red flag. A second one is thrown into this rowdy scene when a middle-management opening is mentioned. It’s what Cynthia, who is Black, has long been hoping for.

Nottage, all her possible plot twists at the ready, now starts to fly them around with intensifying force. Cynthia lands the slot, which means Tracey and Jessie report to her. This doesn’t bother Jessie (who is known to drink way too much), but it eats away at Tracey.

Rumors at the factory — substantiated by the overnight disappearance of some machines — begin to circulate. Will it close? Will there be fewer jobs? Though Cynthia insists she’s doing whatever she can for her friends, Tracey turns skeptical. Then the playwright drops another trouble-making hint: Oscar spots a notice, written in Spanish, that the factory has an opening for temps.

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Events come to a head when management demands that the union accept large pay cuts, Cynthia tries to talk her friends into taking the only offer that will save their jobs, but Tracey and the others refuse. Was Cynthia given her new job so that she, not the “white boys” in the office, would have to face disgruntled workers? She suggests as much. Meanwhile, Oscar takes the temp job, forcing him to cross the picket line.

Nottage’s second act travels between 2000 and 2008 to show what became of the workers and to further depict how they got that way. None of it is pretty (including the tattoos Jason acquired in prison), but it allows the playwright to insert a particularly pithy line. When Jason asks Chris, whose hopes of going to college were dashed, why, if there’s a Black history month, there isn’t a white history month, Chris replies, “I’m going to let you ponder that question.” Nottage also gets in some insights about guilt and shame that ground her trenchant writing. As someone observes, “Nostalgia is a disease.”

Before the playwright is through demonstrating that much of the ugliness of the world is beyond human control — these characters aren’t about to accept that their lost jobs aren’t returning — there’s a explosion of violence as shocking as it is surprising. Or maybe not surprising, considering how craftily Nottage puts things into place.

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Other productions this season have had superlative ensembles, but none is more prominent than this one. The details, small and large, filled in by each cast member are heart-throbbing. So much of this creativity in performance, of course, has to be attributed to Sweat‘s director Kate Whoriskey.

We live at time when people’s livelihoods and heritages have been mercilessly stolen from them with little or no compensation or consolation. That’s the harsh climate that Nottage takes on, honoring and reflecting it back to us. Sweat is a first-rate achievement.