Review: "Sweat" Exposes the Blood and Tears of a Factory Town


Written by Lynn Nottage

Directed by Brandon Walker

Presented by The Seeing Place Theater

Live via Zoom February 27-28, 2021

Streaming via YouTube February 28-March 3, 2021

The cast of Sweat. Image courtesy Kampfire PR
NYC playwright Lynn Nottage's 2015 play Sweat vividly captures the kind of economically depressed community that would become the subject of greatly increased national analysis and discussion after November of the following year. The Seeing Place Theater's engrossing, empathetic virtual production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama benefits The Fortune Society, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated people to successfully reenter their community and runs Alternative to Incarceration and Education programs. The Seeing Place will host a free panel, "Action Steps - Racism and Economics: The Social Impact of Recession," featuring representatives from The Fortune Society on March 3 at 7pm EST on Zoom (RSVP here).

The majority of Sweat unfolds in flashback to 2000 from the play's framing present day of 2008, with brief bursts of news headlines between scenes to provide real-world context (causing one to note, for instance, the consistent propensity of the government to prop up Wall Street with infusions of bailout money). The scenes in 2000 take place almost entirely inside a neighborhood bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, and those who congregate there are almost all currently or formerly employed by the local factory. The bartender is Stan (David Nikolas), who worked at the plant, like his father and grandfather before him, until he was injured on the job. Cynthia (Joy Sudduth) and Tracey (Lori Kee), friends since childhood, still work there, as do their respective sons, Chris (Justin Phillips) and Jason (Logan Keeler), who are also friends—although Chris's harboring of ambitions beyond the plant causes some friction. Cynthia's estranged husband Brucie (Philipe D. Preston), another former plant employee, is struggling with drug use, and Jessie (Eileen Weisinger), another friend of the group, balances her hard work at the plant with hard drinking at the bar. Busboy Oscar (Juanes Montoya), with his Columbian heritage and having never been able to get a job at the plant, is an outsider in multiple ways. Cynthia and Tracey both apply for the same promotion, hoping to make the vanishingly rare transition from the floor into management; the repercussions eventually carry through into and exacerbate tensions caused by changes at the plant, a place that Stan had previously asserted never changed. Ultimately, there will be a parole officer (Miguel Alejandro Faña) involved.
Logan Keeler and Miguel Alejandro Faña. Image courtesy Kampfire PR
The characters in Sweat put a particular, personal face on the devastating effects of capitalism's inherent destabilizing contradictions, which not only inevitably lead to boom and bust cycles but also require ever-increasing exploitation of labor. Even before trouble begins for the play's core characters, they discuss a friend named Frank, who had unsuccessfully tried to shoot himself and did succeed in burning down his own house, in part because he was massively in debt. We see embodied the absolute divide between management and workers and the way that capitalist relations cause transgenerational trauma. We watch Cynthia and Stan lament that they used to be proud to be union members and Tracey bemoans how people no longer respect craftsmen who work with their hands, a complaint surely made by artisans replaced by piece-workers over the course of capitalism's evolution. Significantly, the anger (which parole office Evan cannily diagnoses as an expression of shame) that results from all of this ends up misdirected or misused: Stan says at one point that he isn't voting in the 2000 election because politicians don't know what's really going on (nowadays, perhaps he would vote for the disruptive outsider). He also correctly points out to the others that their rage should be aimed at the owner and not the scabs, but the capitalist system is of course expert at pitting workers against one another.
Lori Kee and Juanes Montoya. Image courtesy Kampfire PR
This deliberate division overlaps with and takes advantage of racism. The same dynamic that prompts Jason to ask why there isn't a White History Month also manifests in the idea that members of one race are getting something, such as a job or promotion, that is actually deserved by a member of another race. And it clearly benefits capitalists for someone to be enraged at the Other who will do the same labor for less pay than at the system that survives only via merciless exploitation.

The excellent cast absorbingly conveys the intensities of the working-class Americans' relationships, anxieties, and struggles while humanizing without shying away from their characters' rougher edges. Nikolas's terrific turn as Stan acts as the fulcrum for much of the play, and just about everyone else gets a stand-out scene at some point, such as Kee and Montoya in a scene in which Oscar upends Tracey's certainties while they share cigarettes outside the bar, Weisinger's Jessie looking back at an 18 year-old self who planned to see the world, and Montoya's Oscar expounding on why he would cross a picket line. The performances are followed by a short talkback; and at the performance which we attended, the artists addressed questions about rehearsing and acting online, the continued relevance of the play, whether this hybrid form of live virtual theater will stick around in the future, working with the character Jason's face tattoos, and more. The Seeing Place's Sweat has a limited run, so see it before it evaporates like the illusion of a factory's loyalty to its employees.

 -John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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