Encore Michigan

‘Sweat” shines a light on small-town darkness in modern economy at The Detroit Rep

Review May 20, 2023 David Kiley

DETROIT, MI–The United States is in a painful era of transition that has crushed many a small town throughout the Midwest and Southeast. Despite recent protectionist trade policies, manufacturing in the U.S. is increasingly difficult to maintain because of our high costs of healthcare, which employers are expected to provide to employees. The cost of labor is just far lower in Mexico and Eastern Europe.

Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage deftly captures the angst and inertia of people who opt for a manual labor “job on the line” out of high school and become pawns in the bigger economic game. Sweat is an apt title to capture both the daily lives of these workers, as well as their vulnerability to a global economy.

Cynthia (Yolanda Jack) is an African American textile worker in Reading, PA in 2000. Tracy (Leah Smith) who is white, is also on the line. Their sons () also work in the plant. Cynthia’s drug addled, economically desperate husband, Brucie (Will Bryson) has been in a lock-out situation at his plant. Jessie (Annabelle Young) is a boozy line worker who embodies and represents every small-town line worker who aspired to see the world only to get trapped in her own bad choices.

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., with the bars and dollar stores doing better business than the downtown or the libraries.

The characters in Nottage’s play are literal pawns on a chessboard, the first to be sacrificed when the wind blows hard. 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 trade tariffs and election year blather about “manufacturing jobs” and “buy American” to protect their jobs.

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 workers make a mistake, they get fired and lose their healthcare. When CEOs make a mistake, they get fired with a party and a check sometimes for $10-$30 million. When we have seen the lack of blood and loyalty on the employer side over the decades, it is difficult to understand why these workers invest so much of their heart and soul as employees. Except they don’t know better because they weren’t curious enough to pursue a better education.

And when we see what the plant is doing to the Cynthia, Tracey and Brucie, we shake our heads when we hear their sons talking about the plant with the same level of dependence. When Chris (Will Street) makes plans to go to college to get a teaching certificate, he is razzed by Jason (Alex Pobutsky) 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, even for less than stellar money, is refreshing to hear and it’s a ray of hope.

The Detroit’s Rep production is as good as you will see anywhere. You don’t have to go to New York to see a terrific cast and production. Nottage’s writing and dialogue is superb, which is reason enough for the play to be done with frequency and all over the country.

Race relations get intelligently explored. Cynthia and Tracey are pals, but it all changes when Cynthia gets promoted to a supervisor. There is jealousy, and Cynthia “goes there” saying Cynthia got the job instead other because she is a black woman, not because she was a better candidate.

Sweat is directed by Jeff Nahan. Harry Wetzel’s set is superb. He perfectly captures the feel of the dog-eared factory bar where the owner, Stan (Patrick O’Lear) a former and now disabled line worker, can set up shots on the bar timed to when a shift ends before the customers actually show up.

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.

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 often have at our tables is a window into what has happened to make the U.S. economy so lopsided.

Week of 6/17/2024

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