I’ll never forget where I was when I found out Donald Trump pulled the scam of the century and became the leader of the free world. I don’t think we’ll ever forget that moment in time. We also won’t forget the power of a people scorned. These are the people we meet at the bar, where everyone knows your name, as brought to life by Pulitzer winner (Ruined) Lynn Nottage’s debut work on Broadway, Sweat.
Three men occupy the stage. DMV gray walls. One white, one Black, and one parole officer, clearly talking about the same (we infer) tragic event, which as a consequence, qualifies the former best friends as two males living on probation in the year 2008.
Music blares. John Lee Beatty’s detailed set spins. And we’re taken back to Reading, Pennsylvania, in 2000, where the law of the land is loyalty, tradition is king, and booze and drugs the currency.
From the moment Cynthia (an affecting Michelle Wilson) walks downstage, hair buoyant as her spirit, she commands a presence that’s tucked into the DNA of every strong Black woman. Within moments of seeing the friend group interact, it’s clear Wilson’s character is the glue that keeps this group together, as their wages dwindle and retirement plans fall apart.
We lean in as she speaks. It’s a birthday. And it’s tradition to celebrate at this bar. The women work “on the line” a steel tubing factory in the area. The community is in for a surprise as it begins to downsize and de-industrialize— a portrait that mirrors the economic climate in many cities in Trump’s America.
Loyalty is put to the test when Cynthia goes after a promotion and gets it. When push comes to shove, we see true colors. Condescension. Microaggressions. Blatant racism.
Just because we’re magic does not mean we’re not real.
Bloody, battered, and bruised, Cynthia trapeze walks the line of loyalty, where the stakes are survival and stability, losing her friends along the way, in a battle in which she was just a pawn.
Bold, angry, and passionate, Tracey (a convincing Johanna Day), magnifies a sweeping sense of nationalism and family pride— a pride she describes that can only be inherited from a people who “built” America (read: white). What’s most scary, is this rhetoric and reasoning is real. It’s human. And often comes out of our “liberal” leaning brothers and sisters who mean well, but may not have fully examined the extent of their inherent privilege, let alone, the Americans across the country living this reality and willing to take any promise of change.
Just when you sink into your chair and start thinking the music between each scene has become a little distracting, or begin to question if the issues covered (immigration, xenophobia, NAFTA, outsourcing jobs, race relations) have become didactic in tone; Nottage, a master in characterization, swoops in with a breath of fresh air and unravels each character’s sincere reason to be.
For Chris, the escape of the system. Witty and hilarious, Khris Davis, breaks our hearts by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and allowing loyalty to outweigh reason, squandering a bright future.
For Stan (a warm and wise James Colby) a life after injury. Jessie (Alison Wright) the dream to lead a life of adventure and love. For Oscar (Carlo Alban), an American born of Colombian immigrants, the stability and a chance to provide for his family.
But more often than not, we find the dream doesn’t surpass circumstance. Instead, circumstance overwhelmingly invites the cycle of stagnancy and status quo.
Sweat breaks down the salt, anger, and frustration of the blue-collar constituents of the rust belt and beyond. A story set in 2000-2008 is our current reality. As result, we couldn’t have a more timely piece on Broadway.
Sweat is Trump’s America.
It is the American people who voted him into office. The voices desperate for a radical change, clinging to an Orange lifeboat, no matter how problematic the package.
Differences aside, we’re all looking for answers and Nottage seems to answer the question of the day: what is America? Go, lean in, listen, and report back in the comments!
Sweat opened on Broadway at Studio 54 on March 26, 2017, after a run at the Public Theater, extended three times. This production welcomes many cast members from the Off-Broadway staging.