Playwright Lynn Nottage, an African-American woman who lives in New York, spent a lot of time in Reading, Pa., doing research for this tough, timely play. All the time she spent there paid off. Sweat shows how proud, well-paid factory workers have their lives turned upside down when management lays off workers and jobs move to Mexico.
The action takes place in 2000 and 2008, the beginning and end of the George W. Bush presidency. The primary location is a no-frills bar where workers go to de-stress after a hard day’s work. Tracey (Johanna Day) and Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) have each spent more than twenty years on the floor of a steel-tubing plant.
The amiable bartender, Stan (James Colby), also worked in the factory for years before an on-the-job injury forced a career change. Nottage (Intimate Apparel and the Pulitzer-winning Ruined) builds the tension gradually. Longtime friends Tracey and Cynthia apply for the same managerial job; when Cynthia gets it, Tracey thinks it’s because she’s black. Tensions rise further when the factory locks out workers and hires scabs. The play builds to a devastatingly violent climax.
Nottage sees both sides of the story and lets all the characters voice their gripes and fears. The result is a talky play that can be a bit polemical, not to mention political. But there’s some lovely writing—one example being Tracey’s speech about her grandfather, a German immigrant who was a master craftsman. She is speaking to Oscar (Carlo Alban), a lowly bar-back whose family comes from Colombia. He tells Tracey that the factory is advertising for lower-paid replacement workers; the jobs still pay more than he makes at the bar.
Sweat covers a lot of ground, touching on racism, addiction, community, unions, NAFTA, ruthless corporations, and the grinding nature of factory work. Nottage squeezes in a lot of ideas, yet somehow the play doesn’t feel overstuffed.
The whole cast is excellent, starting with the superb Day and Williams. Colby is also terrific as Stan, and Alban is equally good as Oscar. John Earl Jelks is heartbreaking as Cynthia’s estranged, drug-addicted husband, Brucie. As Tracey’s son Jason, Will Pullen captures the anger of sidelined 21st-century-American blue collar workers. And as Cynthia’s son Chris, one of the few who yearns for a life beyond Reading and the factory, Khris Davis gives a forceful, thoughtful performance. The nicely lived-in set is by John Lee Beatty.
Sweat is notable not just because it’s the Broadway debut of Nottage, one of our finest women playwrights, but also because the director, Kate Whoriskey, is also a woman. There are still far too few women given the chance to direct on Broadway, and Whoriskey proves she’s certainly up to the task.
She also directed Sweat last fall at the Public Theatre, where it played in a much smaller auditorium. I worried that Studio 54 would be too big for this intimate drama. The good news is that Sweat is equally powerful in a large Broadway house. I hope theatergoers turn out to see this serious, compelling, important play.
Sweat continues at Studio Four through September 17. 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019. Get tickets at Telecharge.