Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus
After a previously sold-out run off-Broadway, Lynn Nottage’s breathtaking play, Sweat, opened recently at the Studio 54 theater. The show, based in Reading, PA, focuses on deindustrialization and its lasting ramifications. In our current political climate, Sweat’s arrival could not be more timely. The show forces its audience to fully delve into the lives of blue-collar workers in America. In a country becoming increasingly divided, as evidenced through the 2016 Presidential Elections, Sweat explores and explains with breathtaking eloquence and clarity the malaise that has spread through many segments of the nation.
For those who have not seen the show, it focuses on the lives of friends working together at a local steel mill. Slowly, as jealousy flares and the workers realize their jobs–and the cultural status that came with them–are dwindling, they each begin to turn on each other. In trying so hard to save themselves and clinging to the work ideals many of their past family members have learned to expect, they are forced to find new work as the impacts of globalization and deindustrialization affect their town.
The show’s strong text is paired with skilled actors and a mundane yet detailed set. The play is primarily set in the local bar, where audience members watch the lives of these workers unfurl as if they were flies on the wall. In each interaction, one can see the close friendships of the characters. In particular, the show focuses on the close bond between two friends: Tracey (played by Johanna Day) and Cynthia (played by Michelle Wilson). In initial scenes, the two characters laugh and drink, jovially sharing stories about their students and their factory jobs, just like normal close friends do. However, after Cynthia is promoted to a role off the factory floor, jealousy flares as Tracey copes with not getting the promotion she truly wanted. As this jealously increases, tensions rise with conversations about race (as Tracey becomes convinced Cynthia was promoted solely for being Black) and the responsibilities of friendships.
To learn more about the show and how it came to be, we sat down with its playwright Lynn Nottage who–in addition to playwriting–is a Professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts. Nottage, originally from Brooklyn, studied at Brown University for her undergraduate degree and later studied and taught at the Yale School of Drama. She has won two Pultizer Prizes and received both the Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Grant.