Sweat the Pulitzer Prize Winning Play at the Guthrie Should Raise Your Temperature

Photo by Dan Norman

*Warning this review may contain some minor spoiler information.

It’s eleven o’clock Friday night July 29th as sit down to write my review of Lynn Nottage’s powerful, thought provoking, and very human play Sweat. I’m wrestling to understand everything I’m feeling and thinking. The feelings are calming, but now I need to try to unravel why I felt them and what I can do with them. It’s sometimes challenging to review a play right after seeing it, you don’t have time to fully come to terms with all of your reactions. More often than not there’s the pressure of time. There’s another review to write tomorrow night, a podcast to prepare for, the day job, the wife, the kids, the dog, must remind myself to sleep at some point. It’s plays like this one where time feels like an enemy, where you know you can’t do the work justice. There isn’t time to process fully, write, and publish something that will adequately convey my experience in the theatre tonight which can be a depressing and crippling thought for a writer. It’s a valid concern, but it’s also an unproductive train of thought. Someone once told me that sometimes a useful frame of mind is “better done than perfect”. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to do our best, it means that we don’t let the goal of perfection get in the way of creating or starting.

Nottage’s play is set in two time periods 2000 and 2008 in Reading Pennsylvania. The play opens in 2008 with a parole officer meeting separately with two ex-cons, Chris and Jason, both recently released from prison. We will not learn why they were incarcerated until towards the end of the play. Most of the action takes place in 2000 at local bar that is populated by blue collar factory workers, workers who have put in the years at their union jobs and make a wage that allows them some level of comfort and security. There is a group of three women who have all worked at the factory together for decades. Cynthia, Tracey, and Jessie and are celebrating one of their birthdays as they always do with a night out at the bar. Chris, we will learn is Cynthia’s son. Jason is Tracey’s and they are best friends like their mothers. A rift begins to form when there is a management position open at the factory. Cynthia declares that she is applying for the position but Tracey at first can’t understand why she would want to do that. But eventually she applies as well. When Cynthia gets it, Tracey doesn’t deal with it well, even implying that see got it because she is black and they wanted to hire a minority. It deals with the specifics of a town where the The Manufacturers are beginning to send jobs overseas. Workers once secure in their jobs with the power of the unions behind them discover that the Union no longer has the power it once did. The companies are fully prepared to move all of the jobs out of the country if the workers don’t concede. When their factory locks them out, Cynthia is management but also their friend, she can’t change what is happening but she does try and let them know what to expect and what the reality is. The problem is none of them listen to reality, they just believe what they want to believe that the factory they have always worked at that their parents worked will always be there, and that the unions will be able to protect them as they always should.

The cast of characters is rounded out by Stan the bartender, Oscar who also works in the bar stocking and cleaning up, and Brucie who is Cynthia’s husband. Stan was injured on the job at the factory and could no longer do the work so had to make a change. He understands his customers because he was once one of them, but he also has some distance from that life that allows him to be less reactionary. Oscar, whom is of Colombian descent, is treated by most of the characters as if he is invisible, that is until he decides to cross the picket line and take a job in the factory, which will pay him $3 more per hour than he makes at the bar. For him that is about a 37% raise. Brucie has been kicked out by Cynthia and has turned to drugs to deal with his unemployment.

Nottage has a real gift for presenting her characters in ways that make them recognizable to most audience members. Even if you can’t identify with a character, you know someone that is like them, if you haven’t lived too privileged a life. Recognizing them helps us to understand them. That really is the power of her work, helping us to understand these characters, through that understanding comes two things. First it humanizes the characters and secondly it clarifies their flaws and what that leads too. There are two types of people in this play those with set mindsets and those with growth mindsets. Cynthia and Chris are growth mindset people. Cynthia wants that promotion, she doesn’t want to keep standing on her feet 10 hours a day until she retires. Chris is planning to enroll in college, he also doesn’t want the rest of his life to be played out on the factory floor. Tracey, can’t imagine why Cynthia would even apply for the management job. Jason makes fun of Chris for wanting to do anything other than work at the factory until he can retire in his 50’s and then buy a Dunkin Donuts franchise in Florida. Tracey can’t stand it when her black friend who has worked at the factory two years less than she has gets the promotion. Even though she didn’t want it in the first place she still believes she deserves it. Why? because she has been there longer? That’s what living the union life has taught her, seniority over performance. Or is it because she’s white? All her hints that minorities are getting all the special treatment these days seems to come down to that she’s white and should have gotten it even though she clearly didn’t want it as much as Cynthia did and thus probably didn’t interview as well or show the promise of success as much as Cynthia did. Stan has a conversation with Oscar suggesting that he shouldn’t cross the picket lines. He warns him there are a lot of good people who are going to be upset by it and that he’s not going to have many friends if he does it. Oscar points out that these are not his friends, they don’t even know his name. Are these good people? They clearly think nothing of Oscar and think he should go back to his own country, even though as he points out he was born in the town they are currently in. Why on earth would anyone with half a brain think Oscar should give a fuck what these set mindset racist entitled white people think. All he is trying to do is make a little money and improve his life. It’s not his fault they were locked out. It is their fault that they never gave him an in to become a union worker as he had been trying to do for two years. If they had, he’d been with them on the picket lines instead of in the factory working while they are out in the rain holding signs.

I’m not anti-union and I don’t think Nottage is taking that stance either, but she does point out the way the Unions have sometimes taken on that set mindset mentality and fostered it in their members. Unions, like people need to have a growth mindset. Everything ends, and if you have never thought about that possibility you are doing yourself a disservice. To think that since your grandfather worked here his whole life along with your father that it will stay the same for you and your children shows a staggering inability to grasp change and recognize patterns in history. Jason wants to beat some sense into Oscar, why? Because things changed and he’s hurt? Since he can’t adapt he’s going to beat up the “foreigner” who isn’t even a foreigner, because dammit he’s white and he’s owned this monotonous existence because his family has done it for years and years. He was here first he deserves the job, and in his and his mother’s eyes, that makes it OK to beat up someone who’s trying to make more than $8 an hour. He’s not taking your job, he’s taking a job he’s been offered for more money, that used to belong to someone who is striking to try and prevent losing some wages and benefits. These are very clear portraits of racism in the general population, ones cloaked in almost logical arguments so that if you don’t take a step back and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you might not see them for what they are. That is the power of Nottages writing though, you see the behavior, you see the other point of view, you think, and it crystalizes.

As you’ve probably gathered there are a lot of ideas contained with Sweat, I’ve only scratched the surface and all I’ve discussed so far is plot, characters, and themes. And there are more ideas in play than those I mentioned above, that’s just what angered me the most. There is discussion to be had about the set mindset’s anger at what they lost, their willingness to blame the “other” rather than the Republicans who battle for the interests of companies whose only concern is higher and higher profit margins rather than for the people who mysteriously keep electing them against their own interests. There are just too many rabbit holes in the warren of this play to go down them all and I need to devote some space to the talented artists who brought this powerful work to life.

Lynn Nottage, dead brilliant script for all of the reasons I go into above. Director Tamilla Woodard whose guidance allowed all of these themes to emerge in a naturalistic way, it’s amazing how many different issues and ideas all find their way clearly unto the stage, always finding their own space to come into focus and without feeling like a pot that everything was thrown into with all the flavors fighting to be tasted. Scenic Designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams who created a local that felt like a thousand small bars in a thousand different towns across America. We’ve all been in them and that helped us establish a familiarity right from the beginning, as soon as the bar set is revealed we collectively have this flash of “I’ve been there”. Aaron Preusse as the Fight Director stages one of the most realistic fights I’ve seen on a stage. Generally they seem to be very fake and barely physical, for the obvious reason that it’s live and these are actors not stunt people, but this one felt close to real. The cast…. There isn’t a weak member of this ensemble so I think rather than try and pick favorites I’m going to list them all below. Praise is due as well to the unsung folks who helped the show arrive at this amazing cast, Jennifer Liestman the Resident Casting Director and McCorkle Casting, Ltd who is the New York Casting consultant. It’s not very often that I see a show with more than say five or six actors that there isn’t one performance that maybe isn’t quite as good as the others. This is one of those casts where there simply is no weak link, period.

Well it’s now a little after 2:30 AM on Saturday morning and I feel like I haven’t said half of what I wanted to say, but also like I’ve said too much. I think that might sum up why this Sweat won the Pulitzer. Certainly there are thoughts and feelings I’m still wrestling with. But, if society is still wrestling with them I think I can let myself off the hook a little bit. I’m sorry if this wasn’t what you expected to read, honestly it wasn’t what I expected to write either. I’d like to promise to return you to your normal format for my next review, but next up will be the MN Fringe Festival so that’s going to look a little different as well. Maybe this is a good time to practice our growth mindset and see if we can’t adjust to things being a little bit different for a couple of weeks. As for this review, I think that while it may not be perfect, it is done. Sometimes the satisfaction needs to come from getting it done. Because, Perfect is simply an unattainable ideal. Whereas done is an accomplishment. And you know what else, I did the best I could tonight.

Sweat runs through August 21st in the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2021-2022-season/sweat/


Ansa Akyea as Brucie

Mary Bacon as Tracey

Terry Bell as Chris

Darius Dotch as Evan

Lynnette R. Freeman as Cynthia

Terry Hempleman as Stan

Noah Plomgren as Jason

Antonio Rios-Luna as Oscar

Amy Staats as Jessie

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