‘Sweat’: When the American Dream gets outsourced
BOSTON – In Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Sweat,” the city of Reading, Pa. is a company town with the company providing the glue that keeps the city together.
But what happens to a company town when there is no company anymore?
Perhaps the same thing that happened in this state when Lawrence and Lowell lost their textile mills, and Brockton and Lynn their shoe factories. They became Gateway Cities for immigrants entering the country, but the jobs that long sustained the cities eventually vanished.
I worked for 30 years in Lynn, where General Electric once employed 20,000 people during World War II and where about 3,000 people are still employed today. Every time GE sneezed, the city of Lynn caught a cold. Still, to this day GE is still looked upon by many in Lynn as a benevolent corporate parent, even after a long string of union strikes and lockouts.
Playwright Nottage (“Ruined,” “Intimate Apparel”) did 30 months of intensive on-site research in Reading – which the U.S. Census Bureau listed in 2011 as one of the poorest cities in America, with a poverty rate of more than 40 percent — before sitting down to write the story of what happens to employees of a metal tubing plant when jobs begin to fly south, and workers are pitted against each other in a race to survive.
The action moves back and forth between 2000, and the economic crisis of 2008, with George W. Bush’s first race for president and his final months in office playing out in the background. It takes place for the most part in a fictional bar that is a hangout for many of those who have made their living for generations “on the floor” of the plant.
The play opens in 2008, and parole officer Even (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) is laying down the law to two recent parolees, wanting to know what plans the duo have for employment and living space. Jason (Shane Kenyon) is white and is festooned with facial tattoos that invoke the Aryan Nation. The second is Chris (Brandon G. Green), a Black man who was at one time Jason’s close friend. We are not told what landed them in prison.
Jason’s mother, Tracey (Jennifer Regan), and Chris’s mother Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie) are also longtime friends. They are part of a triumvirate that includes their friend Jessie (Marianna Bassham), the three having been friends since childhood.
They celebrate birthdays and other occasions at the bar, where Jessie has been known to be occasionally “overserved” by genial bartender Stan (Guy Van Swearingen), who was also ”on the floor” of the metal plant for 28 years until a devastating injury sidelined him.
He is assisted in the bar by Oscar (Tommy Rivera-Vega) a Colombian immigrant trying to piece together a living.
When workers are encouraged to apply for a supervisory position, both Cynthia, one of the few Blacks on the factory floor, and Tracey decide to apply. When Cynthia seizes the day and gains “a desk and computer,” Tracey is happy for her friend – at least until jobs start heading south.
Things reach a head when the company demands huge concessions and employees are locked out of the plant. When Cynthia is still employed, the target on her back becomes a racial one and old bonds are dissolved as Cynthia is accused of profiting over the bodies of her former coworkers.
It plays out over the distant drumbeat of jobs marching south, the American Dream being outsourced.
The victims of this outsourcing are many and include Brucie (Alvin Keith), Cynthia’s ex and Chris’ father, who has retreated from life’s disappointments into a drug-induced haze.
The bar may be a place where last rites are held for Reading jobs, but it also reflects what is going on outside it, a scenario playing out at thousands of factories across the country where companies could once earn comfortable profits while paying comfortable wages.
But calamitous trade deals – NAFTA is the target of four-letter words – and corporate greed have combined to squeeze the workers who in many places – Reading being one – have nowhere else to go.
Set designer Cameron Anderson has authored an impressively detailed workingman’s bar, a place for hard-drinking types, tacky and kitschy, blazing with neon.
Director Kimberly Senior (Huntington’s “The Niceties”) has found a cast who gives her the seething intensity the piece requires.
You may foresee the incident – dramatically portrayed with fight direction by Ted Hewlett — that will add to the downward spiral of all those it touches, but it won’t lessen its impact.
“Sweat” is a cautionary tale of how tenuous the ties that bind us together really are, and the devastation that ensues when they are broken.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of “Sweat.” Written by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kimberly Senior. Scenic design by Cameron Anderson. Costume design by Junghyun Georgia Lee. Lighting design by D.M. Wood. Original music and sound design by Pornchanock Kanchanabanca. At the Huntington Avenue Theatre through March 1. Huntingtontheatre.org.