Lynn Nottage’s prescient American play demonstrates how little it takes to stir up racial unrest and anti-immigrant feeling when people’s livelihoods are on the line.
Premiering in 2015, the Pulitzer prize-winning Sweat captures the fear and frustration that would eventually allow Trump to triumph in the 2016 election. The play is set in Reading, a working-class Pennsylvanian town, one of the poorest in the US. Cynthia (Clare Perkins), Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best) are friends who have worked together at the same factory since they were teenagers, just as their parents did before them. It’s not just what they do, it’s who they are. They sink beers together at the local bar run by the amiable Stan (Stuart McQuarrie), who also worked at the factory until he was seriously injured.
But the bonds between them start to unravel when Cynthia is promoted, leaving the factory floor for a management job, and when Tracey discovers that immigrant workers are being actively recruited in an infringement of union rules. As they come together to celebrate each others’ birthdays, Nottage deftly shows the rifts emerging between them.
The play is brilliant at digging into the areas where race and class intersect. Nottage shows the toll that such physical work takes on their bodies, and the way they use booze to alleviate their fears of what the future might bring – how will they survive if they’re laid off?
Perkins and Plimpton are both incredibly convincing as women who have worked their whole lives. They’ve both had to shoulder loss and raise boys more or less on their own. They’ve both created fairly thick shells around themselves as a result. They’re hard women but life has hardened them.
Lynette Linton’s production is similarly strong on details, swiftly sketching in the relationships between the women, their sons, and Cynthia’s feckless, estranged addict husband.
The narrative hops between scenes set in 2000 and 2008, the latter showing the two young men in conversation with their parole officer, reintegrating into society following an act of violence of which we only discover the details towards the end.
Frankie Bradshaw’s set, a mixture of neon signs and corrugated metal, evokes both the factory that forms such a huge part of these women’s lives and the barroom in which they spend many of their evenings.
Nottage’s play is the result of considerable research and interviews, and sometimes this is almost too apparent. It feels too scrupulous, too careful in its construction.
Yet it is also a play of passion, eloquent about the way life can grind a person down – Best’s (less developed) character has an unbearably moving monologue about the places she once dreamed of travelling – and the way loss of income and of something more fundamental, of hope, of worth, of value in society, can drive people to extremes. At times staggeringly sad, this is an American story, but also a global one.