Review: Nothing sweet about ‘Sweat’ story of disappearing middle class

New play shows impact of corporate moves on human lives

Sometimes it takes a human story to make abstract news stories immediate and very real.
Behind America’s decades of corporate buyouts, union busting and outsourcing industrial jobs overseas are thousands of human stories. There are stories of longtime employees replaced by newcomers so desperate for a job they will work for less than a living wage. There are stories of factory workers arriving at the plant to discover that half the machinery has been shipped to plants overseas. There are stories of friendships and families ripped apart when the remaining jobs are at stake.
These are the human stories in “Sweat,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s new play. “Sweat” had its world premiere Sunday afternoon in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bowmer Theatre.
When you leave the theater after you see “Sweat,” you won’t be able to read news stories about “right to work laws” or “Trans-Pacific Partnership” the same way again. The play may be set in 2000, may be about the consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but it is as relevant as today’s headlines.
Two women, friends for life, work at a local factory in Reading, Pa. Tracey (Teri McMahon) is white; Cynthia (Kimberly Scott) is black. They’ve been working at the plant since they graduated high school. Their union cards guarantee them their jobs as well as a salary and benefits that make an occasional pricey vacation and a comfortable retirement possible. Their 20-something sons also work at the plant. But while Tracey’s son, Jason (Stephen Michael Spencer) is content to work at the plant for the rest of his life, Cynthia’s son, Chris (Tramell Tillman) is saving his money to go to college.
They all hang out at a local tavern managed by the philosophical Stan (Jack Willis), who was lucky to get the bartender job after he was injured at the plant by poorly maintained machinery. Oscar (Carlo Alban), the American-born son of Dominican immigrants, works there as a busboy and dreams of a job at the factory.
But the factory’s new absentee management is putting the screws to the union, demanding concessions on salary, hours and benefits, threatening a lockout or even moving operations to Mexico. Tracey finds Oscar reading a Spanish-language flyer from management offering non-union work.
Cynthia’s husband, Brucie (Kevin Kenerly), is a bitter example of how that strategy worked at a neighboring plant — the lockout has lasted 93 months and Brucie, without a job and hooked on drugs, still walks the picket line day after day.
What happens when the American Dream unravels, when the middle-class lifestyle becomes forever out of reach? What happens when competition for jobs exacerbates simmering racial and ethnic prejudices?
Director Kate Whoriskey keeps the action moving without sacrificing character nuance. She is working with a cast of mostly OSF veterans, with newcomers Spencer and Tillman added just prior to the start of rehearsals. The ensemble work is seamless — including that of Tyrone Wilson as a parole officer and K.T. Vogt as a fellow worker lost to alcohol.
Whoriskey knows this material well. She worked with Nottage throughout the development of the play, basing much of the action on interviews the two of them did with residents of today’s Reading. The 2010 U.S. Census showed 41.3 per cent of Reading living below the poverty line and data for 2011 officially placed Reading as the poorest city in the United States.
“Sweat” may be set in the recent past but, for all the talk of a “rust belt revival,” the traditional industrial jobs in Reading, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are irrevocably gone. The jobs replacing them, unskilled, dead-end jobs in the service industry, are often part time and at minimum wage. No American Dream here, no middle-class lifestyle.
As long as workers are treated as just another “commodity,” Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” remains topical.

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