Sweat

by Marcus Scott

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 15, 2016

Michelle Wilson and James Colby
Michelle Wilson and James Colby  

When Dominique Morisseau's "Skeleton Crew," a tragicomedy about automobile manufacturing assembly plant workers and the death of the American Dream, received a production last season at the Atlantic Theater Company off-Broadway, it received glowing reviews and the playwright was hailed as Detroit's answer to theater titan August Wilson.

This season, with Lynn Nottage's aptly-titled "Sweat," now playing at the Public Theater in the Martinson Theater, the theater community is being weaponized with yet another call-to-arms around America's tribal proletariat at the hands of unadulterated capitalism and the republic's fractured corporatist legislature system.

Similar to Morisseau's workforce elegy to the drudges in Detroit, Nottage's labor union historical fiction drama is an ensemble play, where the personnel have put in long hours. But the similarities end there. Unlike "Skeleton Crew," in "Sweat" camaraderie is the crucible that tests each and every one of these laborers, with Nottage examining the proximity and uniformity these people have after spending decades weaving in and out of the factory to the neighborhood bar.

She also analyzes how insubstantial their rapports are when differences and divergences begin to bubble to the surface. Finally, there's also a major difference of setting. Nottage's latest offering is set in the bowels of Reading, Pennsylvania; for those unfamiliar with this suburban wilderness, all you need to know is that dating back to a U.S. Census taken in 2010, this very real city has the highest share of citizens living in poverty in the nation.

Taking place between 2000 and 2008, encompassing almost the entirety of the George W. Bush administration, the content for Nottage's "Sweat" materialized after she sojourned the city in an effort to research the eroding economic prospects of steel mill workers now left defenseless after the decline in manufacturing and the deterioration of U.S. labor unions.

In the prologue, set in 2008, two twenty-something young men are being consoled in an interrogation room with their parole officer Evan (played by Lance Coadie Williams). Chris (played by Khris Davis, in a moving performance) is a young African-American man trying his best to stay clear of trouble after his incarceration, converting into a born-again Christian.

Meanwhile, the pugnacious and uncooperative Jason (played by Will Pullen with irritating privilege) is slumming it al fresco, living in a tent somewhere in the woods because he can't afford housing. He became a member of the alt-right Aryan Brotherhood Mafia and his face is now covered in tattoos. It becomes apparent that they committed a crime, one that is cleverly concealed until the show's climax.

The play moves back in time eight years earlier. Saturated with blue-collar malaise and staged almost entirely in an old neighborhood bar within Pennsylvania's Berks County (designed by two-time Tony-winning set designer John Lee Beatty), "Sweat" follows a coterie of rust belt factory people who work together on an assembly line just as their kin did three generations prior.

Serving local barflies in this factory town establishment is Stan (played by consistent character actor James Colby), the voice of reason with ties to just about everyone in the county, even the recent flux of immigrants and transplants, like his Columbian bar-hand, Oscar (played by a likable and vulnerable Carlo Albán). The charismatic bartender was injured on the job due to faulty machinery, ultimately terminating his family's legacy in the local steel tubing plant. So when the rumors of layoffs begin to circulate, there's a cause for concern regarding his longtime customers. If only these people were humble enough to accept his warnings of possible offshoring.

Jason's mother, loud mouth Tracey (played by a stellar Joanna Day), a legacy at the plant, is perfectly content provided that the union protects her benefits and she gets incremental pay raises yearly. Her friend Jessie (played by chameleon Miriam Shor), a recent divorcee, has zero aspirations since her marriage failed and seeks refuge in the local drinking hole, getting wasted nightly.

And then there's Chris's mother, Cynthia (played by Michelle Wilson in an emotionally intelligent performance). Cynthia had to abandon her husband Brucie (played by John Earl Jelks; exceptional), a former textile mill worker turned heroin addict after his union was locked out weeks before the events of the play.

After having sold Christmas gifts under her Christmas tree to get his next fix, she had to kick him out. Cynthia has worked too hard for too long, and when she gets a chance at professional advancement, she applies for a supervisor position without realizing the long-term effects this would take on her relationship not only with her hard-drinking friends and family but ultimately the whole town.

Directed by Kate Whoriskey, the relentlessly authentic production brings to mind earlier work of the playwright: The comparisons to "Skeleton Crew" and "Sweat" parallel similar appraisals that critics and the chauvinistic elite made when they cross-examined Danai Guirira's Tony-nominated 2015 "Eclipsed" and Nottage's 2009 Pulitzer-winning drama "Ruined."

Both plays were about women in war-torn African countries while woolgathering edge-of-your-seat tales of how they survived, with "Eclipsed" taking place during the Second Liberian Civil War and "Ruined" taking place in times of civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

However, Nottage's working class drama is a revelation because of its anima. This is a play that demands itself to unearth the meaning and the stigma of disenfranchisement, ultimately bridging a gap between middle-to-lower class rural whites and marginalized people of color in a Trump-Clinton election year. Having won the 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, do not be surprised if "Sweat" is shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize next year.

"Sweat" runs through December 18 at Martinson Theater at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street in New York. For tickets or information, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org/