By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
During this early Spring season, Chicago area arts patrons are being treated to “Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer for Drama winner about race and class relations and de-industrialization in a Pennsylvania steel factory. “Sweat” is playing through April 14.
“Sweat” is directed by Ron OJ Parson, and the production follows a group of friends in a Rust Belt town who have spent their lives sharing secrets and laughs on the factory floor. But when layoffs begin to chip away at their trust, they’re pitted against each other in a heart-wrenching fight in this collision of race, class and friendship at a pivotal moment in America.
“Sweat” is a searing, at times explosive, play that tests the loyalty of longtime friends over the color of their skin. The workers, some second-and third-generation, are making ends meet but still appear to be poor, although they are making big bucks.
As Cynthia, played by Tyla Abercrumbie, and Tracey, played by Kirsten Fitzgerald, apply for the same position as supervisor, they both dream of coming off of the factory floor and moving up to an office position. But Tracey, who is white, questions why Cynthia would even apply and is upset when Cynthia wins the promotion, since Tracey has two more years of time at the factory and as Tracey puts it, her grandfather helped built that town. “Yeah. It sucks. And, I betcha they wanted a minority. I’m not prejudiced, but that’s how things are going these days. I got eyes. They get tax breaks or something.” Tracey’s dialogue continues: “Well, my family’s been here a long time. Since the ’20s, okay? They built the house that I live in. They built this town. My grandfather was German, and he could build anything. Cabinets, fine furniture, anything. He had these amazing hands. Sturdy. Meaty. Real firm. You couldn’t shake his hand without feeling his presence, feeling his power.”
Cynthia deserves the promotion and is sort of surprised by Tracey’s backlash. Cynthia explains her aspirations about being promoted and no longer working on the floor. “It’s like looking at a map and discovering that you’re only just a few miles away from the ocean. But you didn’t know because it was on the other side of the damn mountains.”
After things still don’t improve between her and Tracey, Cynthia no longer sugarcoats the situation: “Hey, Tracey. We good? Cuz since all of this went down I definitely feel some tension. Maybe I’m making it up, but… We’ve been friends a long time, you’ve always been straight with me. You got a problem, tell me. I took this promotion cuz I thought it would be good for all of us.” Her dialogue continues: “And I don’t deserve the things you’ve been saying. You’ve always been cool. Be angry, but don’t make it about this…Cynthia points to the skin on the back of her hand. Look at me, Tracey. You don’t want to go down that road, we’ve got too much history between us. You got a problem, you tell me to my face.”
The play continues as the two women, along with another co-worker and their sons, who also work at the factory, question their friendships and motives. As expected when tensions rise and emotions flare, a tragic event occurs and it forever affects the lives of most of the characters involved. “Sweat” toggles back and forth between 2000 and 2008, with prominent political events of the times played out in the television at the bar that the workers frequent.
Variety writes that “Lynn Nottage goes into the heart of working-class America.” I marveled while watching “Sweat,” as it hit all the hot-topic race relations buttons of today. Tracey felt entitled because she was white and was leaning on legacy that her grandparents had established in the town. Her son Jason and Cynthia’s son Chris are buddies who are newbies to the factory floor. However, Jason echoed his mother’s prejudiced sentiments when he ridiculed Chris’ plans to quit work and go to community college.
“Sweat” is a great play, and Nottage is a celebrated playwright who always touches the pulse of America in the same vein as the late playwright August Wilson. However, Nottage hardly needs a comparison. Her works that include “Ruined,” for which she earned the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and “Crumbs From The Table Of Joy,” among others, are “in-your-face,” no apologies needed depictions of what is happening across America—whether some folks want to admit it or not. Other cast members include Edgar Sanchez as Chris; Mike Cherry as Jason; Steve Casillas as Oscar; Andre Teamer as Brucie, Cynthia’s estranged husband; and Keith Kupferer as Stan the bar owner, among others.
“Sweat” is directed by Ron OJ Parson and plays through April 14 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. For more information, visithttps://www.goodmantheatre.org/season/1819-Season/Sweat/#dsmzh_Gw4Zo.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book info, firstname.lastname@example.org.