Musical Review: Sweat

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After its original debut was sidelined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the highly coveted, award-winning production “Sweat” premiered at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) on April 29. Tickets are available now until May 22. A Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the riveting drama never offers a dull moment, leaving audiences breathless between intermissions. The play was written and inspired by real accounts of life in America’s middle class, and the somber economic history of the early 2000s. In 2011, playwright Lynn Nottage set about researching how and why “poverty and economic stagnation was really shifting the American narrative.” Watch the full interview at the Public Theater NY YouTube page. She then traveled to Reading, Pa., and quickly discovered the struggle at hand. Factories, which served as the area’s main source of employment, were rapidly shutting down and “locking out” employees who were desperate for a source of stable income. Nottage stated that the citizens of Reading felt as though they were silently suffering; no one understood or even knew about their situation. When Nottage and her research team interviewed Reading residents, they were eager to share their accounts of job loss and financial crisis. Nottage entered Reading as a researcher, and two and a half years later, left with a realization of commonality between the people of Reading and her own financial situation. Nottage took the fractured stories of the working class and displayed them on Broadway; putting these accounts of poverty and job loss into dialogue through the engrossing story of “Sweat.”

Directed by John Langs, “Sweat” offers a powerful portrayal of the lives of the American working class during the early 21st century. Based on real factory closures and national events, the storyline centers around the de-industrialization of the United States. When outsourced factory labor took over the U.S. manufacturing system in 2000, unemployment rates soared and factory workers began to feel a severe strain on their careers, relationships, and overall well-being. The play is set in Reading, Pa.; a city that holds one of the highest poverty rates in America, as stated by the New York Times. The production kicks off with a fiery exchange between an ex-convict and a parole officer, set eight years in the future, giving the audience a glimpse of what’s to come. We then travel back to the year 2000, setting the scene to introduce the main trio of friends. Anne Allgood stars as the sharp-tongued Tracey, Sara Waisanen plays the often-drunk Jessie, and Tracey Michelle Hughes is cast as the headstrong Cynthia. Most of the trio’s free time is spent at the bar, drinking and bantering with Stan (Shawn Belyea), an injured factory worker turned bartender, and the young, hard-working busboy Oscar (Miguel Castellano). At first, the three women seem to be the best of friends, but as the show goes on, it becomes clear that this tight-knit friendship is being torn apart by the struggle to make ends meet. Financial trouble, competition for higher-level jobs, and the threat of losing their careers altogether bring out the worst in the three women. When factories begin to cut wages and lay off workers, certain characters quickly turn to racist ideals as they start to feel threatened by minorities who are “stealing their jobs.” The play goes on to highlight how quickly these individuals turn to hatred and envy during a time of need.

Throughout the production, the actors and actresses portray their roles beautifully. From a very drunk Jessie to an explosive encounter between Tracey’s son, the ex-convict Jason (Cap Peterson), and the parole officer (Anthony Leroy Fuller), each actor shows passion for their art by expressing a raw, genuine tone. Nottage’s design of the storyline entices viewers (and perhaps even the actors themselves) to remember their experiences during the economic downfall of the early 2000s. The all-too-real plotline drives home the reality of just how deeply financial troubles can affect relationships, and revives memories for those who lived through the tumultuous economic period. Overall, the play served as an emotional revival of life as a working-class American in the early 21st century. This utterly raw account of financial crises and the bitterness of society that arises with it ultimately shows the horror of the human cost. Be sure to catch a showing of ACT’s “Sweat” to experience the must-see period piece firsthand.