Do Sweat the Big Stuff

Review of the Huntington Theater’s production of Sweat.
Production runs through March 1; information here.

By Zoe Sherman | March/April 2020

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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This article is from the March/April 2020 issue.

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Still from Sweat

Jennifer Regan and Tyla Abercrumbie in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Sweat playing January 31—March 1, 2020 at the Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre. Photo: T. Charles Erickson. More info here.

Will the people, united, ever be defeated? Will the people, when threatened, ever stay united? Can the people, defeated, still retain their dignity? Can we answer, or even ask, such questions without breaking our hearts? Can a broken heart still feel compassion?

Playwright Lynn Nottage bravely went there. According to the 2011 Census, Reading, Penn. was the poorest city of its middling size in the United States. (Over the rest of the decade, the rankings shifted around, but Reading remains consistently in the top—or rather, bottom—three.) After noticing this statistic, Nottage visited Reading repeatedly over the next couple of years to interview people and learn about why they were poor and why they lived in Reading. She found herself moved in ways she wasn’t expecting by the stories, including the stories of middle-aged white men who had years of relative economic security as union steelworkers pulled out from under them, as factories closed or used lock-outs and the threat of closure to force down wages. She found shared themes across boundaries of demographic difference. She then forged the ore mined in interviews into a strong dramatic structure. The result, Sweat, won the Pulitzer prize for drama in 2017. Earlier this month, a group of Dollars & Sense collective members, staff, and friends went to see the production of Sweat now running at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.

As the play begins, a date in 2008 is projected above the stage. The first scene opens on a young white man named Jason (Shane Kenyon) checking in with his black parole officer Evan (Maurice Emmanuel Parent). Our sympathies find no easy place to land. Evan harangues and insults a sullen Jason, and he threatens to force Jason to give an account of himself that Jason does not want to give. He wields his pen and clipboard as weapons, reminding Jason that what he writes on the report can make Jason’s life harder or easier, and his decision about what to write depends on how submissively Jason bends to his power. Should we, then, sympathize with Jason? He has gone to some lengths to make himself appear unsympathetic: there’s a swastika tattoo on his forehead and an iron cross on his cheek. His account of his split lip and black eye seems dubious. He remains mostly still and mostly silent—a tense stillness punctuated by occasional aggressive outbursts. He mentions that he saw Chris. Then Jason exits and we see Chris (Brandon G. Green), a black man of about Jason’s age, checking in with the same parole officer. Whatever history Chris and Jason shared made Jason hard, though shaken by having encountered Chris again. By contrast, their shared history made Chris tentative. He isn’t still for a moment. He swings his arms, wrings his hands, and talks softly, shaken by having seen Jason.

The bare, painted brick wall backing Jason and Chris’s encounters with Evan lifts away, a date in 2000 is projected above the stage, and we enter Howie’s Tap. The set design, by Cameron Anderson, is incredible. By which I mean it is entirely credible. Other scenes later in the play—an apartment, an alley—are indicated with small gestures: a section of wall, one or two pieces of furniture. But the bar, the main setting for the action, is fully realized. The shelves behind Stan (Guy Van Swearingen) the bartender are fully stocked. He serves up beers on tap. The worn wooden paneling, photos, banners, and dart board on the walls convey to us—convey us to—a lived-in, neighborhood institution. Stan himself is integral to the institution, a veteran of both the Vietnam War and of local factory work. He tends bar because a serious on-the-job injury caused by faulty equipment left him unable to add on to the 28 years he had already spent on the shop floor. His is witness, listener, and something of a caretaker and peacekeeper to the regulars. Keep your eye on the bar’s other employee, Oscar (Tommy Rivera-Vega). The regulars don’t, alternating between projecting their stereotypes of Latinos onto him and not seeing him at all, but he is pivotal in the changes coming to everyone’s lives.

The main story takes place in 2000. Each scene is introduced with a date and an audio news montage—a combination of weather reports, national politics, economic indicators, sports headlines, and local interest stories. These scene transitions remind us of the big historical backdrop to the story. As we see individual lives unfolding (and unravelling), the recurring news updates also remind us that the national statistics or sweeping accounts of historical trends that we see when we take a bird’s-eye view are composed of so many distinct life stories.

Similarly, the economic theory that we trade in here at D&S gestures toward common patterns, but each person lives those patterns in their own way. “The overwork of the employed part of the working-class swells the ranks of the reserve [i.e., the unemployed], whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to over-work and to subjugation under the dictates of capital,” explained Marx. What does this mean at the human scale? Tracey’s (Jennifer Regan) back hurts. Cynthia’s (Tyla Abercrumbie) feet throb with blood blisters. Everyone notes that the work is so loud that they can’t think straight. Labor is a torment. Marx says of the mass of unemployed and underemployed that, “its misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labor.” Brucie (Alvin Keith), out of work after fighting a losing battle at his factory, advises everyone who later faces the same decision of whether to fight or fold that they should just agree to the concessions their employer demands. Oscar covets a factory job, even at a fraction of the pay that the current workers fight to defend.

Cynthia, who is Chris’s mother, Tracey, who is Jason’s mother, and Jessie (Marianna Bassham) have been coworkers and friends for more than 20 years, when they all started at the factory right out of high school. Early in 2000, aching backs, swollen feet, and ringing ears notwithstanding, things seem to be going okay for them. Cynthia and Tracey both apply for a promotion. Chris has been accepted to a local college and plans to pick up a lot of overtime over the summer to pay for tuition come fall. Jason has saved up almost enough to buy a motorcycle he covets. The post-dated prologue has already warned us that things will go wrong. We know these hopeful young men will end up in prison, but how? Why? Brucie, Chris’s father, enters as another warning. A labor dispute at his factory led to a lockout that has dragged on for two years and, worn out by the fight, his self-medication has become a debilitating drug addiction. Cynthia laments that when she let him back into the house, he stole the Christmas gifts to raise the funds for his next hit.

When Cynthia gets the promotion and is then tasked with doing upper management’s labor relations dirty work, even closing the gates against her friends during a lock-out, the decades of shared history aren’t enough to save her friendship with Jessie and Tracey. Tracey suspects that she was passed over for the promotion because she turned down a supervisor who propositioned her for sex years ago. As her bitterness grows, she expresses it, too, as racial resentment. “Don’t make it about this,” Cynthia says, gesturing to the dark color of the back of her hand, but Tracey won’t or can’t stop herself. When Spanish-language recruitment posters invite new applicants to replace long-serving, union-member workers at lower wages—though three dollars an hour higher than what Oscar earns at the bar—suddenly Oscar become visible to the bar’s patrons, and they, Tracey especially, don’t see him with sympathy. She follows up a moving speech about her grandfather’s high standards of craftsmanship by telling Oscar that what her family built and the good jobs they fought for, “aren’t for you.”

The forward momentum of the events of 2000 is occasionally interrupted by additional dispatches from 2008. Jason and Chris, each individually, repeatedly meet with Evan, but they are attempting a post-carceral re-entry into a city that has no place for them. “Where are you sleeping?” he asks them, and they have no good answer. A shelter. A tent. “Have you applied for jobs?” Yes, but the jobs stink and the applications forms contain the dreaded felony conviction check box. The misery of unemployment is still in inverse proportion to the torment of labor. They each visit their mothers. Cynthia and Tracey’s former friendship is still irreparable. What’s more, we find that Brucie is not the only one with an addiction-shattered life. Thus forewarned about opioids, the line “My back doesn’t hurt anymore,” set in one of the year-2000 scenes, landed so ominously that the audience gasped.

The tensions brewing over the course of 2000 explode in the climactic, penultimate scene—we knew they would, though not quite how. As Chris says in 2008, “What if he hadn’t? What if I hadn’t?” Maybe something had to give, but this exact outcome was never inevitable. The epilogue is set forward again in 2008. Evan, whose struggles with his impossible job become more sympathetic as we see him again and again, observed that, in his judgment, shame is the most destructive of the emotions. More than guilt. More than anger. In the last action we see, Chris and Jason take a first, terrifying step toward making amends and overcoming their shame. We have no way of knowing if their attempt will succeed.

No, we can’t ask questions about solidarity and fear and defeat without heartbreak. But, with Nottage, we can ask these questions—and hear answers we didn’t want to hear—with compassion. She, and therefore, we, can view with sympathy even the most tragically flawed characters, and their grievous, even unforgivable crimes.

is a member of the Dollars & Sense collective and is an assistant professor of economics at Merrimack College.

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