Pulitzer-Prize Winning Play Works Up a 'Sweat' on Midwest Tour

Lynn Nottage’s 'Sweat' is a grim tale of blue-collar workers torn asunder by economic and employment anxieties.

Oct 5, 2018 at 2:24 pm
click to enlarge Carlo Alban, Steve Key & Kate Nowlin in "Sweat." - Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
Carlo Alban, Steve Key & Kate Nowlin in "Sweat."

Lynn Nottage entertained Cincinnati audiences in 2005 when Ensemble Theatre produced her heartfelt drama Intimate Apparel, a moving tale about an African-American seamstress who creates imaginative lingerie for her clients. More recently an operatic adaptation of her play was workshopped by Cincinnati Opera with Nottage in attendance.

She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Ruined, her play about the lives of women in the civil war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year, she snagged her second Pulitzer for Sweat, a socially conscious drama set in a working-class bar, commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (2015) and then staged in New York by the Public Theater, eventually transferring to Broadway.

The Public has undertaken a tour of Sweat to 18 rural Upper Midwest communities where depressed economic circumstances resemble Nottage’s grim tale of blue-collar workers torn asunder by economic and employment anxieties. In these counties — where free one-night performances are scheduled — the 2016 presidential election was closely contested. Of the 18 longtime blue-collar strongholds, Donald Trump won 14. Though the play is not overtly political, its characters are people whose votes made a difference. I attended a performance at a parish hall in Ravenna, Ohio on Oct. 3.

Sweat follows the lives men and women who have been drinking, laughing and working together in a factory and hanging out in the local bar. Layoffs and picket lines begin to erode their friendship, while once-powerful unions no longer protect their interests; they find themselves struggling to stay afloat and lash out at one another. To research, Nottage spent over two years in Reading, Pennsylvania talking to locals. Sweat is told with mordent wit, and offers a powerful message that turning against one another is not the way to fight back.

“We saw a real need out there for dialogue,” Nottage said recently in a press release. “People are suffering in isolation, and there’s a lot of frustration. In theater, we can build community very quickly and provide an outlet for people to release their emotions. So we’re taking Sweat into the places where people need to be in dialogue with each other.”

The Ravenna performance was the tour’s third engagement. I arrived early and watched the cast run through a rapid brush-up on their bare-bones portable set, a timeworn bar. Folding chairs were set up in a church social hall for an audience of 100, but before performing began, more than 50 additional seats were needed.

The play first unfolds in 2008; a probation officer harangues two young men — one black and withdrawn into religion, the other white and racist — and tries to put these one-time friends back on the right track. In two acts — about a dozen scenes — we wind back through 2000. These young men, their single mothers and other workers frequent the bar for jocular celebrations after work.

When Cynthia (Jenny Jules, in a powerfully nuanced performance), a longtime African-American floor worker at the factory, becomes a supervisor, a wedge is driven between her and rowdy friend Tracey (Kate Nowlin makes her tough-minded and outspoken), whose grandfather and father also worked there. In short order, the company begins to impose layoffs and demand union concessions. Their friendship unravels in the form of festering rage that erupts in a tragic bar brawl.

Circling back to 2008, the characters recognize that supporting one another might be a better course of action than lashing out. The Mobile Unit team facilitated a sensitive post-show dialogue. Many in the audience in this city of 11,000 had experienced similar circumstances in Northeast Ohio when major employers, including General Electric and Goodyear, relocated manufacturing operations to Mexico in the early 2000s.

Tears were shed; anger and encouragement were expressed during emotional testaments that reflected shared common ground with the play’s characters. Each tour stop includes such activities. And follow-ups are planned, in hopes of giving voice to stories from locales that will become part of a larger national narrative. The Public Theater has created an app where stories can be shared

An audience member told the cast: “Arts can alter viewers’ realities. Here and beyond, you are making a difference in our civilization.” This was a powerful demonstration of how serious theater can provoke meaningful conversation on contemporary political themes.

Sweat, a national touring production by the Mobile Unit of New York City’s Public Theater, continues to Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin until Oct. 23. For more info, click here.