Pride & Shame Are Brothers: “Sweat”

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kimberleigh Senior
Original music & sound design by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca
Fight direction by Ted Hewlett

Jan. 31 – March 1, 2020
Huntington Avenue Theatre
Boston, MA
Huntington Theatre Co on Facebook

Content warnings: This production includes the smoking of cocoa shell cigarettes (100% nicotine-free). It contains themes of drug use, drug addiction, alcoholism, and homelessness.

Trigger warnings: racial and gender microaggressions, intentional bigotry, sexism, racism, graphic violence, implied drug use, exploitation of a disabled person, and Republican politics

The Huntington Theatre Company website says that those who are interested in more information should please reach out to Ticketing Services at 617 266 0800.

Critique by Kitty Drexel

Boston, MA — Lynn Nottage’s Sweat won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. After reading in in 2017 and seeing it live last night, it is not difficult to understand why. Sweat balances gender, race, and class discrimination issues like a well-crafted dagger. This art represents the struggling people of Reading, PA that Nottage interviewed to write her play. It gives insight into the dangers of unchecked greed while commenting on the political events that provoked into a capitalist fury. Sweat has you in the palm of its metaphorical hand… And then it drops you on your ass.

The Huntington website summarizes Sweat this way: “Based on interviews with the residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, a group of close friends struggles to stay connected when their unionized steel factory is at risk of collapse. In a neighborhood bar, each of them reaches for their piece of the American dream.”  Sweat is much more involved than this simple explanation.  Nottage weaves nine character stories together until they can’t be separated.  A person could write their Ph.D. thesis on its ins and outs.

This is a complicated play with multiple crossing storylines. The town of Reading is thrown into an unstoppable depression by the 1994 NAFTA trade deal. Suit-wearing factory owners stonewall the unions into dissolution. Their tactics cause the employees to fight each other instead of the rich bastards making a buck from their pain.

Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie) and Tracey (Jennifer Regan) are vying for the same cushy office position in their steel plant. Competition drives them apart. Chris (Brandon G. Green) and Jason (Shane Kenyon) are best friends until a fight sends them to prison. Stan (Guy Van Swearing) used to work at the plant until disability forced him to retire. Brucie (Alvin Keith) worked at a plant that closed. Unemployment has driven him to drug use. Jessie (Marianna Bassham) can’t catch a break. Oscar (Tommy Rivera-Vega) is a native but a factory outsider. He becomes a Scab to earn a better living. Evan (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) is a parole officer who sincerely wants to help his parolees make better choices. The factory is woven into every aspect of their lives.

Huntington’s production of Sweat captures the absolute domination that poverty can exert over people. Impoverished people, looking for any kind of relief they can afford, turn to drug abuse. Keith shakes and Regan twitches like a person who doesn’t want to keep abusing but doesn’t know how to make their body shut up without it. Bassham as Jessie drowns herself at the bottom of a glass so she doesn’t have to exist for a little while. When the sun rises, they attempt to get on with their lives only to go back to abusing when they can’t.

Sweat tokenizes disability within the context of examining the conversation around class, race, and gender inequality. The character Stan became disabled while working at the steel factory. He was offered a payout by the managers and is the manager of Howie’s Bar when we meet him. He suffers further injuries through the events of the play. Stan’s physical health is sacrificed so the other characters in Sweat can grow.

Stan isn’t given a story arc of his own. He exists to serve beer and to provide perspective to the factory workers. They might be unemployed but at least they aren’t Stan. As a physically disabled woman, it hurt to see Stan used like this. I rarely get to see people who look like me on stage. We, disabled people, are more than just metaphorical mirrors for abled problems.

Photo by T Charles Ericksonn©; Tommy Rivera-Vega, Guy Van Swearingen, and Jennifer Regan. Stan (center) walks through most of the play with a limp.

The final moments of Sweat are pure inspiration porn. We see the traumatized characters look upon Stan with pity as he wipes down tables  in a bar. They share a short dialogue about caring for each other. Stan can no longer care for himself. It’s all very sad for them. They should be able to care for each other when Stan can’t even care for himself.

Stan is trying to do his job. Pity doesn’t pay our bills, give us better access to public spaces, or ensure our social security benefits. All it does is make abled people feel better about themselves at our expense.

Sweat is a brilliant play. But, the button at the end hurts disabled people more than it helps in the fight for racial, class, gender equity.

The fight choreography looks safe, sane and consensual. The actors look well rehearsed and in charge of their interactions. Depending on where an audience member sits, the choreography will appear more or less effective. Someone sitting in the center orchestra will find the fight more realistic than someone sitting on the sides or in the balcony. A person triggered by realistic looking graphic violence may be more comfortable in a seat that gives them a better view of the precautions the actors are taking.

Local actors Marianna Bassham, Brandon G. Green and Maurice Emmanuel Parent tear up the stage with their work. Truthfully, with the exception of Abercrumbie (whose portrayal of Cynthia is so vivid and her character development so thorough that no one else would do. You can hear her crying, see the pain in her body. It’s a shock that she isn’t actually crying because she makes us believe that she is.), New England’s excellent local talent could play any of these parts. It’s a damn shame that they aren’t.

Sweat appeared in 2016, 2017, and 2018 issues of American Theatre Magazine.

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