Encore Michigan

WSU brings Lynn Nottage’s gritty ‘Sweat’ to Detroit

Review November 09, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–The United States is in a painful era of transition that has crushed many a small town throughout the Midwest and Southeast. Manufacturing in the U.S. is increasingly difficult because of our ridiculous costs of healthcare, which employers are expected to provide to employees, and lower labor rates in Mexico and elsewhere in Central America–especially for low-cost, low-profit items like textiles.

It is into this period of pain for under-educated 99%’ers and movement of low-skill and assembly-line jobs to Central America and China that playwright Lynn Nottage wrote Sweat, now in production at Wayne State University.

Cynthia (Jasmine Monet Roosa) is an African American textile worker in Reading, PA in 2000. Tracy (Lani Calll) who is white, is also on the line. Their sons (Alex Morrison and Quint Mediate) also work in the plant. Cynthia’s drug addled husband, Brucie (Dewight  Braxton Jr.) has been in a lock-out situation at his plant.

The playwright researched this play by digging into a community in Reading in 2011 and interviewing numerous residents who had lost their jobs in manufacturing and textiles. Reading was and is one of the poorest cities in the U.S.

The characters in Nottage’s play are like leaves on the ground in Autumn. They are the ones who get trampled by the upwardly mobile and monied classes. They are also the ones who get played in American politics with promises made and promises broken. Under-educated, they are the people who have seen their idea of the American dream evaporate before their very eyes in the last thirty years, and unfortunately can be wooed by the fool’s gold of tariffs to protect their jobs or proposed immigration policy that would limit the number of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala willing to work for less money and longer hours.

Nottage does a superb job of capturing the ignorance of these people without disrespecting them. When we hear Tracy and Cynthia talk about the dignity of their work, their ethic for the repetitive work, we can respect the simplicity of their ideal. But when they talk about the plant like it was Mommy and Daddy that will take care of them if they just work hard, it’s hard not to feel as sorry for them like we would a child who opens a lemonade stand on a rainy day. The ability and willingness of companies to empty plants of their machines and tooling in the middle of the night when workers are sleeping has been part of the fabric of American business for decades. Companies really don’t care very much about their workers. They are disposable, and can easily be replaced. When you see the lack of blood and loyalty on the employer side, it is difficult to understand why these workers invest so much of their heart and soul as employees. Except they don’t know better.

And when we see what the plant is doing to the Cynthia, Tracey and Brucey, we shake our heads when we hear their sons talking about the plant with the same level of dependence. When Chris (Morrison) makes plans to go to college to get a teaching certificate, he is razzed by Jason (Mediate) for stepping out of their bubble. Indeed, Chris wouldn’t earn much as a teacher, but even his momentum to get off the plant floor is refreshing to hear.

One of the forces that Nottage address too in this story of lives crushed by the times they live in is the impact of drugs on the downtrodden and victimized. People who have hardly been outside their states or counties and lose the protection of their employer become lost. And it’s not just line workers. Farmers in Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska who have victimized by Trump’s tariffs have been committing suicide at an alarming rate. Race relations get intelligently explored, as well. Cynthia and Tracey are pals, but it all changes when Cynthia gets promoted to a supervisor.

When people lose everything they have and everything they know, it is painful. And to audience members who have seen the world, or even the country, we wonder why the young people at least can’t see that staying in a town like Reading, or Flint, or Gary or Lordstown–so dependent on one employer–has little future for any kind of economic prosperity or opportunity. For many they are simply prisoners of what they know, as well as family ties they are reluctant to stretch across state lines.

Sweat is directed by Calandra Hackney. The Scenic Designer is Karen Kozlowski, who created a very spot-on environment of a bar in the shadow of the plant, the images of which we can see above and behind the worker hangout.

The story is told with some time-shifting, between 2000 and 2008 when Tracey and Cynthia, and their boys, are no longer employed by the plant, which had offered workers a 60% pay cut to keep their jobs.

Money has become the toxic pollution of politics, policymaking and the election process. People like Cynthia and Tracey can hardly breathe any more. And even as the income gaps between the very wealthy and those squeezing by keep getting bigger, the monied interests try to hedge against an uprising at the polls by making it more and more and more difficult each election cycle for these folks to vote at all. The voting time is getting squeezed. One party refuses to make Election Day a holiday, making it more difficult for the Cynthias and Tracey’s of the country. Tens of thousands are arbitrarily removed from voter rolls on trumped up pretenses without being told so they are not registered when they go to vote. Voting stations in red states are closed in poorer neighborhoods. Gerrymandering is manipulated to corral those who are likely Democratic voters into as few districts as possible.

Even as the Dow Jones Industrial Average stays aloft, economies in America’s heartland that are still tied to manufacturing remain as fragile as blown glass. Watching lives inside that glass bubble in Reading, PA fall apart is not so up-lifting. But connecting with the pain and suffering of people we do not know and don’t have at our tables is a vital window into what is happening to the country, why, who can help and who is just yanking our chains for their own gain.