As historians often try to make clear, the us-and-them divisiveness that defines American life today did not spring full-blown from the election of 2016: our cultural discord goes back decades. And while its causes are varied, the threads of race and the economy are woven deep into the fabric of this dilemma. With Sweat—for which she won her second Pulitzer Prize—playwright Lynn Nottage unravels these knots and reminds us that so much of what sets us at odds is often beyond our control.
Set in a bar in blue-collar Reading, Pennsylvania (one of the poorest cities in the country), Sweat moves back and forth between 2000 and 2008 as it charts the achievements and defeats of residents whose lives depend upon the fortunes of a local factory. It’s a rough ride, not only for the strains of the work (or the lack there of), but for the way in which the pinch of physical and emotional hunger can gut the deepest friendships.
“The plays deals with the heartbeat of America,” says director Ron OJ Parson. “I know that sounds like an old Chevy commercial, but that’s really what it is all about. It deals with all the societal issues we are dealing with today, including drug addiction, alcoholism, racism, the loss of jobs, class.”
A resident artist at Court Theatre and a co-founder and former artistic director of The Onyx Theatre Ensemble, Parson is drawn to plays that have an historical element to them, such as the work of August Wilson, which he has directed a number of times. Although Nottage isn’t diving into the deep past with Sweat, in the ever-accelerating age we live in, today is quickly yesterday and the present is history before we know it. “Richness of character also interests me,” notes Parson. “I like audiences to feel what’s on stage—not just see it, not just hear it. I think when you have a richness of character, as you do in Lynn’s plays, you’re able to make people do that.”
Keith Kupferer, whose Goodman credits include appearances in Ellen Fairey’s Support Group for Men and Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, is one of the actors charged with bringing audiences into the world his character inhabits. Kupferer plays Stan, who once did factory work but is now behind the bar. “I know exactly from where my character is coming,” says the actor. “I’ve worked many jobs and am attuned to the blue-collar sensibility. The play may be educational to the more affluent members of the audience, but I already know the realities of how the ‘other half’ lives. That’s why I believe this play is so important and beautiful and necessary at this point in time.”
“The blue-collar world resonates with me in a couple of different ways,” shares Steve Casillas, who plays Oscar, a Colombian-American who works in the bar while hoping for a job at the plant. “I never worked a blue-collar job quite like the characters in the play, but some of my family members have. I remember hearing their stories of 16 to 18 hour shifts. My family members have always been extremely hardworking and I believe their work ethic trickled down to me. I bartend—and I know that’s not a blue-collar job, but I’ve had my fair share of 12-hour shifts on my feet.”
Like Kupferer, Casillas thinks Sweat hits home in its realistic depiction and artful dissection of lives tottering on the edge. “What I love about the play is that it is a big eye-opener on how a lot of Americans live and struggle. Living here in Chicago you can be distracted by the city lifestyle. It’s easy to forget that there are small towns all over America that depend solely on work in factories. It makes brunch and cupcake shops seem extremely inessential.”
Although Nottage is fearless in exploring the social disintegration that so often trails the struggle to make ends meet, Sweat is a play about people, not an editorial. It may be just a play, but if an audience can “feel what’s onstage,” as Parson hopes, perhaps hearts and minds can be altered. “Theater should make us think about who we are,” asserts Parson. “Theater can change the world.”
This piece was written by Thomas Connors for Playbill.