The United States is undergoing a difficult transition which has affected many small towns in the Midwest and Southeast. Despite recent protectionist policies, the high cost of medical care that employers are expected to provide their employees has made it increasingly difficult to sustain manufacturing in the United States. Labor costs are much cheaper in Mexico and Eastern Europe. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage has created Sweat, which masterfully captures the anxieties and inertia of those who graduate from high school and choose the “death job” of manual labor as pawns in the larger economic game.
The play is set in 2000 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and follows Cynthia (Yolanda Jack), an African-American textile worker, and Tracy (Leah Smith), who is white, as they both compete for a job. The storyline also includes their sons who work in factories. Cynthia’s drug addiction has left her financially destitute, with her husband Brucy (Will Bryson) locked out of the factory. Jessie (Annabel Young), a heavy-drinking line worker who epitomizes every small-town line worker who wants to see the world but is caught up in her wrong choices, represents her.
The playwright researched the play in 2011, by immersing herself in the community of Reading and interviewing many residents who had lost their jobs in the manufacturing and textile industries. The characters in Nottage’s play are literally pawns on a chessboard, the first victims of a strong wind. They will be trampled by the rising wealthy. These undereducated people have seen the ideals of the American Dream disappear before their very eyes for the last 30 years, and, unfortunately, the hype around trade tariffs and election-year “manufacturing” or “buy American products” to protect their jobs.
The play’s ability to capture the ignorance of these workers without belittling them is noteworthy. When Tracy and Cynthia talk about the dignity of their work and the ethics of repetitive work, we respect the simplicity of their ideals. But, when they talk about this plant like a mom and dad who just work hard and take care of it, feel sorry for them like we’re kids opening a lemonade stand on a rainy day. The ability and willingness of companies to empty factory machines and tools in the middle of the night while workers are asleep has been part of the fabric of American business for decades. Workers who make mistakes are fired and lose their health insurance.
The Detroit production of Rep is as good as you can find anywhere. Notage’s script and dialogue are excellent, which is reason enough for the play to be performed frequently all over the country. Race relations are intelligently explored. Cynthia and Tracy are friends, but everything changes when Cynthia is promoted to supervisor.
The story is time-shifted between his 2000 and his 2008. At this time, Tracy, Cynthia, and their sons are no longer employed at the factory. The factory was offering the worker his 60% cut in wages to maintain employment. Watching life fall apart in a glass bubble in Redding, Pennsylvania isn’t exactly uplifting. But connecting with the pain and suffering of people we don’t know and rarely sit at the table provides a window into what has made the U.S. economy so skewed.