SWEAT, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning and Tony nominated searing critique of the effects of globalization on workers, could have been lifted from the campaign playbooks of Bernie Sanders and, yes, Donald Trump. Except it was not.
Presciently predating the electorate’s angst in the 2016 campaign and election by more than a year, SWEAT was commissioned and first produced in 2015 for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolution History Cycle and Arena Stage. It was then staged at the Public Theatre in November 2016 for two-months before transferring in March 2017 to Broadway for a celebrated run.
Opening in 2008 – World Undone
SWEAT, opens in 2008 with two young men - Chris and Jason – sitting on opposite sides of the stark set, separated in darkness while the other speaks to their parole officer. They are also separated by race, Chris is black and Jason is white. We don’t know why they were in prison for the past eight years, and are now released back into society at the beginning of the opioid epidemic and the world wide financial meltdown. The play then briefly shifts to a local tavern in 2008 where most of the play takes place and where George W. Bush appears on TV telling Americans that the Wall Street bailout will cost $700 billion. Do the math. 2000-2008, the entirety of the Bush presidency, and the temporal walls are set for the drama that is about to revealed. And instantly, from this set-up, a knot takes hold in our stomachs. We already know that for Chris and Jason, and other still unseen characters, their world had come undone and remains that way today.
Backtrack to Financial Meltdown
Except for this introduction and the final scene, the entire play takes place over time in 2000 at the bar, as the crime that Chris and Jason committed is slowly revealed, parallel to the social and economic crime to the other workers at the tubing factory in Reading, Pennsylvania that had provided jobs and financial security for generations.
Chris’s mother Cynthia and Jason’s mother Tracey also work at the factory and are close friends. Filling out the trio of these single, hard working women is Jessie, who years earlier was only supposed to work at the plant for a short time before embarking on a magical mystery tour with her then boyfriend to such exotic destinations as Peshwar, Tehran and Afghanistan. Jessie never left Reading and stayed behind to work instead, forever leaving her dreams behind as well.
The bar, where the workers gather after their shifts and to celebrate life cycle events, is like a public soapbox. There they take turns talking about their lives, which are inseparable from the tubing plant. Work defines them. The friendships of these otherwise disparate women and young men, black and white, were formed and bonded by the common denominator of their work.
Overseeing all of this at the tavern is Stan, the bartender, who once worked but became disabled in a workplace accident and now hobbles around on a bad leg serving drinks, cleaning tables and acting as a referee to their bubbling anger. Helping Stan is Oscar, whose family emigrated from Columbia, though he was born in Reading.
At the beginning of the play in 2000 the workers gather at the bar to talk about and fume over rumors about layoffs, plant closings, relocation to Mexico, grievances about NAFTA and Wall Street greed. In 2000 these workers, and workers like them all over the United States and the world, are experiencing for the first time the effects of globalization in the new post-industrial world. Their fears, uncertainties and anger are all lay bare at the bar, fueled and lubricated by beer and alcohol.
Into this toxic brew Nottage adds race, immigration and class warfare after Cynthia is promoted from the plant floor and into a management position, beating out Tracey who believes that Cynthia got the promotion because she’s Black. Their long friendship becomes strained and quickly deteriorates when the workers go out on a lengthy strike in the face of management demands for concessions. All stirred up, the rage of these workers boils over in a dangerously powerful scene when Chris and Jason, egged on by Tracey, take out their anger on Oscar, who crossed the picket line to work at their jobs for less money.
SWEAT Ends Where it Began
In the end, SWEAT returns to the beginning, when Chris and Jason are paroled from prison in 2008 and return after eight long years to a much different Reading and world.
There is no happy ending or satisfying resolution for the workers in SWEAT. Instead, Nottage leaves them in 2008 where workers find themselves today.
Here they are today—Lied to by politicians, and helplessly run over and tossed aside like so much detritus in a world riven with inequality.
About the Author:Jon Karmel is a Chicago based lawyer representing labor unions and workers around the Midwest. Jon has been named among Chicago's Top Rated Lawyers, and was selected for inclusion in the 2013-2017 Illinois Super Lawyers. He serves as an adjunct professor at Emory University School of Law, where he teaches trial advocacy skills. He is a frequent speaker on labor and employments topics. Jon recently wrote a book about workers' deaths and injuries, featuring interviews with injured workers and surviving family members. Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace that will be published by the Cornell University Press late summer 2017.