Hillary Clinton called them a “basket of deplorables.” The National Review’s Kevin Williamson took an “honest look” at their “welfare dependency,” addictions and “family anarchy” and came to the “awful realization” that these “dysfunctional, downscale communities… deserve to die.” Pundits first ignored and later chastised Rust Belt voters, particularly the now infamous “white working class.” Playwright Lynn Nottage took a novel approach: She listened to them.
Inspired by Occupy Wall Street’s popular rage against wealth inequality, Nottage began conducting extensive interviews with residents of Reading, Pennsylvania in 2011 — once a thriving industrial hub and today one of the poorest cities in America. The result of two and a half years Nottage spent in the field is Sweat, up for three Tony’s this month, including Best Play. Sweat doesn’t focus solely on white workers but it does illuminate the complexities of the Trump era, saying as much about why Black and Latino voters stayed home in November as why whites mobilized for Trump. It tells the story of a multi-racial working class grappling with the impacts of automation and globalization; of workers striving for the American Dream in an economy in which they are an afterthought.
“What the fuck is NAFTA?,” barks Tracy (Johanna Day), a dyed-in-the-wool Reading native whose German grandfather helped construct many of the now boarded-up buildings that comprise the city’s downtown. “Sounds like a laxative.”
The line, uttered early in the first act, foreshadows events to come, as friendships and familial bonds between the characters are tested and, in many ways, broken by forces beyond their control or understanding.
John Lee Beatty serves as Sweat’s set designer, creating a beautiful rotating set that is often turned to the homey dive bar where most of the play’s action takes place. It is here that Sweat’s blue-collar characters gather to celebrate birthdays, blow off steam, dream of vacations that never materialize, gripe about the news and settle their differences. The play moves back and forth between the year 2000, when one-by-one Reading’s employers are shipping production abroad, and the dawning of the 2008 financial crisis. During set changes, archival news footage flashes across the stage, marking the passage of time but also hinting at the events beyond the bar that are shaping the drama in otherwise hidden ways.
The characters in Sweat admirably attempt to better their station, or at least hold on to the scraps of the American Dream they already possess, as the town around them crumbles. Nottage asks the audience to think critically not only about the shortcomings of the American Dream but to consider the American Dream as an amorphous moving target.
Steelworker Tracey and bartender Stan (James Colby) recount the hard-working lives of their European ancestors who, like them, stood on the manufacturing line. Injury forced Stan behind the bar counter, while Tracy is fighting to preserve her union as rumors of a lockout begin to spread. Her best friend, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), dreams of surpassing racial and gender barriers at the factory by becoming a supervisor.
Carlo Alban delivers what is perhaps the most tender and heart-wrenching of performances in this work as Oscar, the saloon’s bar back. A Spanish-speaking outsider who lacks the connections to receive a union card, Oscar has been wiping down tables and gathering empty beer mugs for years without a raise. When an opportunity to cross the factory’s picket line and earn a higher wage eventually materializes, he leaps at the chance.
As the steel company begins to lay off employees, when their pensions are obliterated and their unions wither, rifts ensue between the characters that take the shape of violent prejudice but which are clearly rooted in desperation.
During the play’s intermission, in true New York theater fashion, we chatted with our neighbors seated next to us. One insisted the characters represented Trump voters. “It’s them, I know it’s them,” he said, pointing at the stage. Several theatergoers turned and nodded, as if to say “amen.”
There is a cathartic comfort in having someone to blame for the Trump presidency. But Nottage reminds us that capitalism — shown here in its post-millennial, neoliberal incarnation — is the real culprit behind the bomb that shattered our ballot boxes. Loyal to no one, it carves racial and ethnic lines through the working class and forces its members to compete against one another, or worse, against nameless, unseen workers across borderlines who are desperate enough to be exploited for even less.
Sweat does not give the impression that America will be great again or that it ever was for many of its inhabitants. It hocks no magical elixir for the downwardly mobile working class. Perhaps to a fault, Nottage’s characters lack a sense of collective agency present in working-class dramas of bygone eras, such as Waiting for Lefty, which, while tragic, highlighted rank-and-file power on the shop floor. But we live in different times. Sweat takes the consequences of sweeping trade and economic policies crafted by liberal and conservative administrations alike and portrays their consequences on a human scale. Toward the end of the play, news footage of the 2008 bank bailouts flashes over the stage. It begs the question: When will the people of the Rust Belt receive theirs?
Photo: DEINDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: Michelle Wilson as Cynthia and James Colby as Stan in Lynn Nottage’s Tony-nominated play about a working class fighting to survive. Credit: Joan Marcus. Credit: Joan Marcus.