I’ve expressed in previous posts my impression that certain recent plays – among them, Hir and The Humans – seemed to have taken on new meaning and impact in the wake of the 2016 election. I’m going to add to that list Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat, which is currently running at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in an engaging and compelling production directed by Justin Emeka.
Sweat – which Wall Street Journal columnist Terry Teachout deemed “the play that explains Trump’s win” in an article published a week after the presidential election – focuses on a group of union workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, whose jobs at a steel tubing plant evaporate after the factory owners move a large portion of their production to Mexico. The play mostly takes place at the workers’ favorite bar, and it shifts in time between 2008, when two of its characters have recently been released from jail and returned to a city devastated by economic collapse and rampant addiction, and 2000, when, in the wake of losing their high-paying manufacturing jobs and pensions to economic forces they lack the wherewithal to understand, they lash out violently and with unintended consequences.
We all know much of this story now. Teachout is correct, the current occupant of the White House seems to have gotten there by ginning up the resentments and rages of people like Nottage’s characters, people who are correct to be angry about all of the ways corporate America has broken its compact with communities in which generations of workers have created wealth for industry owners, but who are also pointing their anger at all the wrong targets – immigrants, in particular.
And here’s where this play feels like it is a different play now than when Nottage originally premiered it, in 2015. Then, it was a mostly (although not wholly) sympathetic portrait of people who were being left behind by globalization, whose pain was not being recognized and whose frustrations weren’t being taken seriously. Now, however – although you’d have to be a monster not to feel any compassion for the people on whose stories Nottage based her play (and I like to think I am no monster) – two years of watching those folks froth and swoon over the nationalist, racist, and anti-democratic bile that streams from their chosen leader’s Twitter account makes characters based on them – sad and misfortunate as their fates may be – pretty unsympathetic.
I think this play remains important nonetheless because of the way it pulls together the many threads that turned union workers into Trump voters. To begin with, there’s their dearth of education and information: at the beginning of the play, one of the workers, Tracey (Amy Landis) not only has no idea what NAFTA is, but is also proudly resistant to acquiring knowledge, and in a more subtle touch, we see bartender Stan (Tony Bingham) perpetually switching the TV from news to sports, the preferred media diet for his customers. Then there’s the steady erosion of both union loyalty and union power, the first hinted at in a throwaway line by 21-year-old Jason (Patrick Cannon), when he complains about the amount of money the union pulls from each paycheck, and the second made manifest by the ineffectiveness of a strike at another plant, where union workers have been locked out for ninety-three weeks and replaced by lower paid “temps” who are looking more and more permanent. These combine, paradoxically, in an oblivious sense of entitlement among the characters as well as an utter lack of understanding of the larger social and economic forces that are rendering traditional union tactics obsolete and ineffective: the characters both believe that the mill owners “owe” them the job security and high wages their parents and grandparents unionized and fought hard to secure and also take the union and its benefits for granted.
In places, Sweat feels like it is overexplaining its subject; this, too, may be an artifact of the spotlight the election shone on communities like Reading. The play is at its best where it gestures, without full explanation, toward connected social challenges. When Jason – who has joined the Aryan brotherhood in prison and sports a tattooed swastika on his cheek – visits his mother Tracey in 2008, she’s clearly strung out, and her passing mention that she takes drugs for her back pain is more than enough to link the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector to the opioid epidemic. Likewise, even though the African-American Chris (Ananias J. Dixon) is more of a bystander than an active participant in the assault that sends him and Jason to jail, he gets a longer sentence – that, too, is a given circumstance of our current social system that Nottage leaves for us to fill in on our own. Moreover, while I could wish that the play gave a more sympathetic insight into the circumstances and forces that might prompt Latinx workers to cross a picket line for economic opportunity – and that it did not make its only Latinx character, Oscar (the excellent Jerreme Rodriguez), the scab – the play’s depiction of the way immigrants from Central and South America have been scapegoated by both displaced workers and the politicians who want to misdirect those workers’ rage rings depressingly true – and presciently reveals much about Trump’s win in the deindustrialized heartland.