Sweat looks backwards to find where we are today

Five people stand in a bar confrontationally while a man cleans in the back.
Lora Brovold, Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Ashley Wright , Alen Dominguez, and Anthony Santiago in Sweat. Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

We know the story of Sweat. As inhabitants of a resource-rich country and province, it’s all around us, it’s in our newspapers, and it influences politics at all levels. It’s the story of families with a long history of working in a particular industry or company and the expectation that workers will be loyal to those companies and in turn those companies will deliver on their promises of good jobs, holistic benefits and economic stability for generations. It’s the story of a society that valued and rewarded hard, physical work with one’s hands. It’s the story of everyone basically looking the same and having the same background. It’s the story of knowing your place in the world. Until one day, those things all change and you’re left ill-prepared for the world surrounding you.

Sweat by Lynn Nottage plays at the Citadel until February 3 and tells the story of 8 people in Reading, Pennsylvania as they deal with union negotiations, strikes, plant closures and so much more.

I really do mean that phrase ‘so much more’. In this production, directed by Valerie Planche, it feels as though every single one of the factors that’s led American society to the place it finds itself in now is attempted to be given equal weight and focus. The issue Nottage’s play tries to tackle is not a simple one. The play covers global and local politics, climate change, the history of unions, race, class, education, the opioid epidemic, sexism, immigration and a hundred other causes I’ve forgotten or didn’t catch on to. Watching Sweat is a little like reading a paper on the macroeconomic factors that have contributed to today’s American (and Canadian) socio-economic environment.

My reception to Sweat can best be described as mixed. I’m a firm believer that the universal can be found in the specific, however, Sweat is not a play that follows that maxim. On one hand, I understand that the issues the playwright and production want to address are complex and multilayered. On the other hand… I am aware of these issues and can connect the dots between them, as I suspect many of the Citadel’s audience can. While the journey the play takes you on is intensely emotional, I didn’t develop a more complex and nuanced understanding of the issues it addresses. I wanted Sweat to be less wordy and to allow more time to breathe. This play never stops its constant assault of new layers of issues and root causes. Watching the play from a comfy seat in a big theatre also felt wrong. I wanted the play to be a bar (or The Club at the Citadel) – I wanted to have a drink with these characters as I was shown how they got to where they are.

Three people sit at a table having a discussion while a woman is passed out at a bench in the back.
Marci T. House, Ashley Wright, Lora Brovold, and Nicole St. Martin in Sweat. Photo credit: Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

My issues with the pacing and broad scope of the play aside, I found the acting to be the highlight of Sweat. There wasn’t a character that was hard to sympathize with or understand their journey. I particularly loved Marci T. House’s portrayal of Cynthia, one of the first African-American workers to work on the factory floor and the first person from the floor to successfully move into a management role (of course, only to then have to ask her friends and former co-workers to take a 60% pay cut). Marci’s portrayal of the changes that come with going from co-worker to boss and the tensions that causes both in Cynthia’s own mind as well as with her friends and former co-workers added a lot of nuance to the story. I really enjoyed the passion with which Nicole St. Martin played her character Tracey, who is all in, all the time, whether you’re with her and against her, but concerns about her identity and place in the world are barely considered beneath her tough exterior. Alen Dominguez’s portrayal of Oscar, the Pennsylvanian native with Columbian roots, adds so much to the story simply by the way he blends into the backdrop of the bar in the first act and gradually becomes unignorable as the play progresses.

Much like the current situation, there are no winners and no heroes in Sweat. The play is unapologetically honest and real – something I appreciate about it. Having been published in 2015, you can draw a direct line between the play’s scenes from 2000 to the scenes in 2008, to the 2016 American election to Brexit to the current American government shut down over the border wall. The question is, where do these characters – and we – go from here?

Sweat by Lynn Nottage runs at the Citadel until February 3. Tickets are $35 – $115 through the Citadel Theatre’s box office.

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