American factory workers look over their shoulder at how the world has fallen apart around them. Two of them know their destroyed lives are because of their own actions; but the greater disruption birthing their newly rotten lives has been forces beyond their control. It’s Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which Bill Brantley says ” is the first work from a major American playwright to summon, with empathy and without judgment, the nationwide anxiety that helped put Donald J. Trump in the White House.” That’s a pretty broad claim, but I’m not going to dispute it; this play is timely in all the ways theater aspires to be – grabbing the neck of the rabbit with greyhound speed and shake, shake, shaking it in front of our transfixed eyes. But underneath the explosion of now is a play I feel suffers from serious structural flaws. It is not just watchable but fascinating, yet, let the scales of our collective trauma fall away from our eyes and we see Sweat sacrifices truth and dramatic legs in exchange for easy answers and audience friendly resolutions. Let me convince you.
First, I want to talk about what is right about this play. First, the ensemble just completely hits it. Not a bit about their performances left me disbelieving in their characters. We have three female workers (at what I believe is a pipe plant): Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), her best friend Tracey (Johanna Day), and Jessie (Alison Wright); Cynthia and Tracey’s sons, who also work at the factory; and bartender Stan (James Colby), who, alongside Cynthia’s sort of ex-husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks) serves as a sort of wake-up call about the human cost of factory work: Stan was injured so badly he was paid out, but not enough, while Brucie has been laid off and just can’t seem to get his life together anymore. All of them drink a fair bit; none of them seem to get a whole lot of joy out of life; the lot of them value their friendships with each other quite highly. Work is unpleasant but a source of identity; and without it, we start to slip into the cracks. Leaving the factory for something else, like Cynthia’s son Chris (Khris Davis) is talking about? That’s turning your back on your clan, on your family, on what you’ve all worked for. You’ve got the factory and your future and past if you have the job. The cast makes that feel real; the self-lies and shortsightedness of just one or two generations of stability feel very much like a reality you, as an audience member, can buy into. And the stories they tell, of a grandfather who worked with his hands to carve beautiful things, of dreams to travel the world that never came to fruition, seem like tiny slices of reality all working together to construct a believable world.
Nottage works hard to create characters we can invest and believe in. The easy friendship between Chris and Jason (Will Pullen), based on drinking and basketball and working together, slides seamlessly across any color barrier; ditto Cynthia’s friendship with Jason’s mom Tracey, built on years of slogging together and shared experience. And for both pairs, we get to see the children being responsible as their parents struggle – dramatically speaking, something I’ve seen rarely but am too familiar with in real life. But, in the play, as things start to tighten up, suddenly the question of race rises to the front and people start to talk about each other as being in competition. The busboy at the bar, Oscar (Carlo Alban), is suddenly seen as a foreign intruder, despite being a US citizen; and the ties that had formed over years start to fall apart.
But … but … drip by drip, story by story, the reasons that accumulate for why these people’s lives fall apart start to feel like a narrative that’s been pasted on top of a real situation to provide answers that, I honestly feel, were palatable ones for the audience present. Why did people lose their jobs? NAFTA. Why has racism risen in America? Not enough jobs to go around. Why didn’t people in factory jobs retrain for other stuff? They were discouraged to leave their community by their friends. Why the rise in anti-immigrant hysteria? Actually, let’s pick this apart.
So as this play tells it, the rise in hatred against immigrants was caused by the perception that they were “moving to America and taking our jobs away.” But as set up by Nottage, the “immigrant” in this case is someone who is an American citizen. So I ask: what is it that makes people decide to ignore this kind of truth? How could Tracey choose to ignore a job posting Oscar shows her that makes it clear people are being recruited in to the jobs at the plant at lower wages? How could Tracey really deceive herself about her ability to deal with her friend being promoted and make it be about race instead of skill or personality fit? You have to ignore a lot about what has gone on in the last ten years to make such facile conclusions about the origins of the divides that exist in America today, and while I agree that it’s been NAFTA that has decimated the health of the American working class, the rise in racism and anti-immigrant hysteria does not have such similarly simple origins.
But that’s what we’re given, A happened and caused B, and of course it’s very clearly delineated. This simplicity goes through to the ending of the play, which to my mind was just like a group hug after a therapy session – it felt nice but it felt inappropriate and off kilter and just way, way too easy. And that’s how I left this play, feeling like there were some really important subjects that needed to be addressed, but I’d just been given simple answers from one point of view that I didn’t even think represented my point of view much less reality. I mean, maybe even the belief that people can be color blind in a society of plenty was just an illusion I had in the 90s. Maybe we can really never work together. And maybe people always slip to drugs and violence when they’re poor. I just don’t think our stories and our world is as easy to understand as this play makes it out to be. And for that reason, I think that Sweat, while fully embedded in the world of today, is not going to wind up having dramatic legs, because it’s the questions that remain unanswered, the ones we take home with us, that are left out. We are not living in a facile world and we don’t need to be spoonfed easy answers like we, the audience members of today, are children. Push us more. Make us question ourselves. We need it.
(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, April 8, 2016.)