How The Assembly Line Ended: SWEAT at Everyman Theatre
Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-winning Sweat, which premiered Off-Broadway five days before the 2016 election and was transferred to Broadway the following year, was hailed by the New Yorker's Michael Schulman as "the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era." Schulman pointed out that the play gives us a deep dive into the anomie of the Rust Belt workers so critical to Trump's victory. The revival of the play now on display at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre confirms Schulman's diagnosis, with two caveats: there is almost nothing there about the group's electoral behavior, other than an articulated sense of pointlessness in voting, and the play ends eight years before the election, when the economic environment was significantly different from that of 2016. By the time the show premiered, the development central to the play's action, deindustrialization, with all its closed factories and discarded workers with attendant ruination of lives, had already reached an at least temporary climax. Moreover, there had been the financial collapse of 2008, and a recovery based on furthering a conversion of our economy to one based less on manufacturing than on lower-paid services, which factory workers were not well-adapted to provide nor economically able to take on. Sweat focuses instead on the moments, mostly earlier, when the deindustrialization tsunami engulfed manufacturing, with all the profound human wreckage that wave caused. Nottage's case in point, a Reading, Pennsylvania steel fabrication factory in the year 2000, is already history in 2008, when the play ends, let alone in 2016. If it's a tale of Trump voters, then, it's their backstory, not the tale of their votes.
But it's a great backstory, if not a totally unexplored one. Baltimore audiences last year, for instance. saw the Center Stage production of Dominique Morrisseau's Skeleton Crew, which premiered around that same time as Sweat, and like Sweat, focuses on the loss of a manufacturing plant and all the livelihoods that depended on it, using some of the same plot devices and symbolism. Michael Moore, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Barbara Ehrenreich, and many others have told the tale more than once in other media. But great minds think alike; there is plenty of room for more than one treatment of this important theme. And Nottage is magnificently up to the task.
She gives us, at the play's core, three high-spirited factory-worker women: Cynthia (Dawn Ursula), Tracey (Deborah Hazlett) and Jessie (Megan Anderson). As the action begins, times are still good, and they and their fellow workers regularly resort to a tavern presided over by barkeep Stan (Kurt Rhoads) to celebrate birthdays and friendships. Two of the trio, Cynthia and Tracey, are even among the competitors for promotion to a supervisor's position, which would be an anomaly, as the plant has no history of recruiting supervisors from the shop floor. Good times make even racial harmony achievable, as Cynthia is black while her two besties are white, and the races mingle effortlessly in Stan's tavern. But we already know from a sort of prologue, in flash-forward, that Cynthia's and Tracey's sons will by 2008 have served time because of some still-unidentified common disaster connected in some way with the events of 2000 we are about to witness. In this way, Nottage warns us, if we needed any warning, that this industrial Eden will not end well.
And end badly it does, as Nottage tightens the grip of the catastrophe step by slow step. We all know the historical outlines of the story enough to have a general idea what to expect: management ready to break unions to exact wage and benefits concessions, scab laborers, jobs exported abroad, plant closures, mortgage foreclosures, destitution, opioids. But Nottage renders this familiar tale powerful and surprising.
And comprehensible. And honest. What makes the downfall of this Eden so especially heart-wrenching is the destruction of a vision of the place and the dignity of the manual laborer. That vision viewed jobs as a form of property, as a stake in the employer which the employer was bound to recognize and reward with lifetime employment and a decent retirement thereafter. It is a vision that undergirds the entire self-image of the play's workers, expressed in various ways at the outset. From the standpoint of American law and 21st-century management, however, the only stake of more than rhetorical significance was that of the investors and lenders of the companies. We witness the frustration and disbelief of the workers as their claim is disregarded with prejudice by management, and we see how destructive of the lives of these workers is the force of their disillusionment, even more than that of their economic privations without regular factory income.
At the same time Nottage is honest enough to show how this vision of jobs as property was historically misused as well by the workers who harbored it, how it justified the resistance of white employees to admitting black ones into their midst, and, at the threshold of the deindustrial revolution we witness, it is being employed to prevent Hispanic workers from gaining a foothold in what had become black and white turf. When we find out the specifics of the event that lands the sons it prison, it proves to pivot on the misuse of that vision.
Nottage is onto a big story, and she gets it right.
In program notes, Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi notes that from the moment he saw the show, "I knew I had to produce it at Everyman." I suspect that the reason for Lancisi's instant determination is that he knew immediately when he saw roles perfect for the talents of Anderson, Hazlett and Ursula, members of Everyman's repertory company. It's a pleasure to see these three long-term colleagues, very familiar to Baltimore audiences, gobbling up juicy roles together. But then the entire ensemble is strong. Three of them are newcomers to Everyman, and probably to Baltimore audiences. I particularly admired Alejandro Ruiz as Oscar, a plucky Hispanic newcomer to Reading's industrial scene, determined to be neither shut out from its job market nor morally diminished by the death of the vision that has animated and, it turns out, crushed those who were there before him. Although he represents a clear new ethos, Oscar gets the last line in the play, affirming the best of the solidarity of the bygone workforce.
And of course Lancisi must have seen the fun he would have directing this show. If there was anything he missed in realizing Nottage's vision, I missed it too.
The sets at Everyman are usually a treat, and this one, courtesy of Daniel Ettinger, is no exception, a beautifully detailed tavern, fully realized, mounted on a turntable that facilitates various other less detailed settings on the verso. A tip of the hat is also owed Lewis Shaw for the choreography of a protracted and really dangerous-looking fight in the late going.
This is definitely one not to miss.
Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, through November 25, at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $10-$65 at http://everymantheatre.org/sweat or 410-752-2208. Adult language, smoking, drinking, graphic violence.
Photo credit: Clinton Brandhagen