Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat takes place in Reading, Pennsylvania, mostly in the years 2000 and 2001, midway in time between 1975's proud union chorus and the recent press making the point that laborers in any line of work, even as low on the career totem pole as supermarket cashiers and stockers, who manage to wrangle a union contract are making national news. Between 2000 and 2010, Reading, once an industrial hub abloom in well-paying factory jobs protected by unions, regularly made the list of medium-sized cities with the highest percent of residents living in poverty–number one on the list, at $41.3%, in 2010–as factories moved production and jobs to Mexico and other locations without unions, increasing profits for owners and stockholders while devastating the lives of their once loyal line employees.
Sweat depicts the effects of this unspooling of the American industrial workplace and the cities in which they were clustered with bracing fidelity. Starting in 2012, Nottage spent two years in Reading, interviewing people from all walks of life about the effects these changes in the economy had on them and upon the social fabric of their community. The first fruit of that process was Sweat. It premiered in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, followed the next year by an Off-Broadway production that received Obie and Drama Desk awards, then a Tony-nominated Broadway production another year later. Nottage and Sweat were honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017.
Even before Sweat's first staging, the Guthrie Theater commissioned Nottage to write a second play inspired by her Reading research. That play was Floyd's, which premiered at the Guthrie in 2019 and opened (after a COVID lockdown delay) on Broadway, newly titled Clyde's (in deference to George Floyd's murder just a few miles from the Guthrie) in November, 2022. It too was Tony nominated as Best Play. Now, the Guthrie at last brings Sweat to Twin Cities audiences, also after a lockdown delay. Without question, it has been worth the wait.
Nottage creates a small focal point in which conflicts between labor, management, and community play out by setting most of the play in a small, well-worn neighborhood bar, a gathering place presided over by Stan, once a factory-floor worker with one of those well-paying, safe union jobs at the Olmstead factory plant (we never learn what they manufacture, and it truthfully doesn't matter) until an on-the-job injury causes him to "retire" early. Now, along with beer and stronger drinks, he dispenses wisdom that is a blend of his experience at the plant and the years behind the counter, observing how the lives of his regular customers, all Olmstead employees, are impacted for both better and worse by their workplace.
The focus narrows on two customers in particular. Tracey, whose connection to the community and the company goes back three generations to her immigrant German grandfather, has worked at the plant for twenty-four years. Cynthia, whose father, the last of a long line of sharecroppers, moved north and struggled to get an Olmstead job. He did, but not in the union, only a custodial job. Her attainment of a position on par with Tracey's represents a breakthrough for her as a Black woman. Over her twenty-two years at Olmstead, she and Tracey have become best friends. Their sons–Tracey's is Jason and Cynthia's is Chris–have grown up as best friends, too, now entering adulthood with Olmstead jobs of their own. Chris however, harbors other ambitions–unthinkable to those with a mindset of life-long, multi-generational lives lived at Olmstead.
After a boozy birthday celebration, the plot is triggered by an opportunity laced with poison: the opening of a management position, for which both Tracey and Cynthia apply. There are also rumors that the company is looking for ways to hold down costs, challenging union clout in ways afforded by NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement, voted into law during the 1990s). In the mix we meet Cynthia's drug and alcohol addled husband Brucie; the bar's cleanup and backroom guy, Oscar, a young Latino who is scarcely noticed by the customers; and Jessie, a friend of both Cynthia and Tracey who once had the dreams of a 1960s hippie before getting sucked into life on the line at Olmstead. In addition, there is Evan, a probation counselor, who appears at the start and the end of Sweat in scenes set in 2008, seven years after the play's main action.
Director Tamilla Woodard, making her Twin Cities debut, gives Sweat a muscular production that holds its narrative up to the harsh light of recent history and current events. In this barroom microcosm, Nottage lays out the issues, both seen and lying in wait, that pounce upon these individuals, but clearly means for these to be viewed as more broadly impacting the bar's other, unseen habitues, the entire Olmstead workforce, the populace of Reading, and the vast industrial heartland: Youngstown, Ohio; Flint, Michigan; Elkhart, Indiana; and countless other rust belt places with shuttered steel mills and auto assembly plants.
On an even larger canvas, it lays bare the minefields strewn across American society writ large: systemic racism, unacknowledged; the threat felt by those claiming to be "real Americans" after three generations versus those more recently arrived but under the same kind of duress; intergenerational strife; gender inequality; and the ravages of drugs on those who self-medicate to bear the pain of losing both livelihood and dignity.
The production is graced by an excellent cast. Mary Bacon as Tracey and Lynnette R. Freeman as Cynthia are both terrific, and well paired to demonstrate the easy affection between those principal characters and the later animosity fueled by a system beyond their control. As their sons, Terry Bell (Chris) and Noah Plomgren (Jason) convey both the foundation of their life-long friendship and the differences that force their way to the surface.
Terry Hempleman has a comfortable way with bartender Stan's desire to stay out of the line of fire, good-naturedly speaking truth to everyone, free of responsibility for it. Antonio Rios-Luna imbues Oscar with wholesomeness and ambition and, in a welcome departure from stock Latino roles, perfectly spoken English. Darius Dotch's Evan has a strong handle on the tough love required of him to guide young men re-emerging into the world after time behind bars. As Brucie, Ansa Akyea gives a wrenching portrayal of a man weighed down by life, though the play fails to offer insight into how his life turned that way, which would make Brucie a specific, rather than generalized, portrait of a defeated Black man. Amy Staats suffers from the lack of clear purpose given to the character of Jessie. Staats does what she can, but the role never feels integral to the narrative.
Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams' excellent set has us enter the McGuire Proscenium Theater to face a wall that seems made of flat sheets of metal riveted together, at a factory like Olmstead. The few scenes not set in the bar are performed in front of this "iron curtain," which rises to reveal the well-crafted homey barroom. I kept waiting, though, for the jukebox on stage to be put to use. The costumes, by Sarita Fellows, capture the working class lives of the characters–who says you can't find nice clothes at Walmart? Alan C. Edwards' lighting and Luqman Brown's sound design serve the production well. When things come to a head in the play, Aaron Preusse does outstanding work as fight director, one of the best executed such scenes I have seen on any stage.
I found the projections, designed by Katherine Freer and displaying both national and local headlines attached to the date indicated at the start of each scene, to be more distracting than helpful, with text and images scrawling too quickly to fully register. If they are meant to place the action of each scene in both a local and national context, this seems unnecessary as the play accomplishes this on its own merits. < P>After its Broadway opening, one commentator opined that Sweat depicts the seeds of anger and despair that explain the appeal of Donald Trump to a large swarth of the working class. It would be interesting to see how, after four years of a Trump presidency and his residual appeal to a large following two years later the play might differ were Nottage to write it today. We know more about the political havoc provoked by social and economic loss so deftly depicted in Sweat. Reading's recent stats show an uptick in its stats, though it is far from regaining its glory days. Those union labels are not likely to return anytime soon. But Sweat offers a clinical view of the work that needs to be done for communities to raise their citizens up. Better to view Nottage's vision not as a documentation of decay but as a call to action.
Sweat runs through August 21, 2022, at the Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $26 to $80. Seniors (65+), college students (with ID) $3.00 - $6.00 off per ticket. Public rush line for unsold seats 15 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets, $20 - $25, cash or check only. For information and tickets call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Lynn Nottage; Director: Tamilla Woodard; Scenic Design: Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; Costume Design: Sarita Fellows; Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards; Sound Design: Luqman Brown; Projection Design: Katherine Freer; Resident Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Vocal Coach: Keely Wolter; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Intimacy Coach: Shae Palic; Resident Casting Director: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Karl Alphonso; Assistant Stage Manager: Olivia Louise Tree Path; Assistant Director: Atlese Robinson.
Cast: Ansa Akyea (Brucie), Mary Bacon (Tracey), Terry Bell (Chris), , Darius Dotch (Evan), Lynnette R. Freeman (Cynthia), Terry Hempleman (Stan), Noah Plomgren (Jason), Antonio Rios-Luna (Oscar), Amy Staats (Jessie).