Lynn Nottage: Sweat, Donmar Warehouse / Gielgud Theatre, London (Director: Lynette Linton)
By Sascha Krieger
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage has established herself as a chronicler and theatrical seismograph of the American working-class and its disappearance. When Sweat premiered in 2015, it seemed hard to imagine that those the play portrays would just a year later sweep the most dangerous president the United States have seen into the White House. Yet looking at the play now, it seems wuite prophetic, a precise and early analysis of the seismic shift that has plagued lower-class America and the conflicts half-buried and fully ignored for too long. In it, Nottage depicts a derelict industrial town, founded on a steel mill that has been a second home to many for generations. Catalysed by the now infamous NAFTA agreement of 1994, things change: pay and benefits are cut, workers locked out, replacements recruited, the fabric of the community destroyed. Friendships and loyalties are teste, racial conflicts emerge as communities are divided by those for whom this makes it easier to conquer them. Sounds familiar?
At the centre of the play are two families: the mothers are lifelong friends but get pitted against each other, when the black Cynthia gets promoted over the white Tracey. Their sons are best friends, too, but get ripped apart when tensions erupt in an act of violence. Nottage emphasises the identifying power of work. Based on interviews and research conducted in the once-thriving town of Reading, Pennsylvania, she shows a community fo which the local factory is the centre of their lives and a source of pride. Union cards are a status symbol – and for black women such as Cynthia proof of their social advancement and acceptance. But also a divisive factor: for the white families, working at the factory is a family tradition, for the black workers, it’s a step into society. That is denied to newer immigrants. Even at the lower social stratum, classism is alive and well. The play, therefore clearly depicts how the growing anger and hatred turns not against those responsible but is diverted towards equals, fellow pawns in someone else’s game, fellow victims: they – the black factory worker turned supervisor, the hispanic bar hand turned strike-breaker – become the scapegoats, the targets of wrath and discrimination, the convenient culprits. Given the play’s focus on strong women, fighting for what’s right, the division seems ever more painful. Set in 2000 and 2008 with two pivotal elections looming, Trump’s America, which saw extreme division particularly among women at the 2016 election, is right here.
As tends to be an issue with drama in the well-made-play tradition, clichés and stereotypes are not shunned, set-pieces abound and subtlety is sometimes viewed as a hindrance. Both central pairs feature well-worn conflicts between ambition and blind contentment, awareness and ignorance – with the black characters belonging to the former, the white ones to the latter category. As so often, there is a narrative frame: the former friends turned criminals Jason and Chris are seen in conversation with their parole consultant, Jason with Nazi tattoos in his face, all is lost when it begins, the ploy serving mostly to provide contrast and suspense for the following memories of mild happiness. Director Lynette Linton uses a rather thick brush. Set in Frankie Bradshaw’s also not too subtle but impressive set design combining a derelict factory backdrop and a lively bar, where most of the play is set, she emphasises the obvious, the clear-cut and unambiguous. Facial expressions, gestures, words are always close to being over the top, drama is emphasised so that nobody misses what’s going on.
The effect is that the excellent actors have to work hard to pump the life into the somewhat formulaic play and the effect-heavy direction. Most significantly this task falls to Martha Plimpton as Tracey, carefully depicting the transformation of acidic wit into undiluted hatred fueled by self-pity, and Clare Perkins as the scrupulous, combative and stubborn Cynthia. Patrick Gibson’s Jason and Osy Ikhile’s Chris are only slightly overshadowed by them yet hinting at the struggles of a young generation finding themselves in a new world – and working out the growing divisions in race and class consciousness brought on by social pressure. Yet, a lot feels somewhat forced: the „relieving“ humor, meant to keep the audience’s attention, the almost streotypical characterisation preferring types to individuals, the sense of nostalgia harking back to the pride of an industrial age painted in somewhat too rosy colours. Leading into an awfully didactical ending and dismissing the frame story as a mechanical ploy, thus robbing the characters of some of their depth provided by their older selves, the play’s perceptiveness shines thought it struggles with its well-madeness, a conflicted, emphasised rather than mitigated by the production. The cast manages to provide soul and authenticity, yet the production feels a little heavy-handed and might have found more truth in a lighter touch. This way, the emotional and intellectual impact is somewhat weakened by its theatricality.