Playwright: Lynn Nottage
Theatre: Donmar Warehouse, London
Director: Lynette Linton
Review by Joy Francis
Lynn Nottage is, without question, an extraordinary playwright. The first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, her plays (such as Ruined and Intimate Apparel) are grounded in humanity, rooted in history and steeped in academic rigour while being transcendent and emotionally intelligent. Nottage tells real stories of unheard people, often women of colour, with great care, craft and drive.
Her acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat, which transferred to Broadway after a sold out run at The Public Theatre in New York, is no exception. Nottage spent over two years in Reading, Southern Pennsylvania, with a team of researchers interviewing local people to understand how a once booming town was relegated to one of the poorest in the US.
Set in 2000, Sweat unveils the devastating human cost of deindustrialisation in an American town. In act one, compassionate probation officer Evan (Sule Rimi) moves from berating and cajoling the heavily-tattooed Jason (Patrick Gibson) in one meeting to advising and encouraging the smart but agitated Chris (beautifully intense Osy Ikhile) in another.
On the surface, these twentysomething young men couldn’t be more different. Jason is white working class with the number 12 tattooed on his forehead and the word ‘Pride’ etched across his throat. As for Chris, an African American, clinging to religion and his dream of finishing his degree. Yet they are connected – by class, a shared history and an undeclared crime that lingers in the background like the smell of rotting meat.
The play moves back and forth over eight years, slowly stripping away at the reality behind these two young men’s parallel lives. We see Jason’s feisty and controlling mother Tracey (the effortlessly brilliant Martha Plimpton) celebrating her birthday at Reading’s main watering hole Mike’s Tavern, with divorced lush Jessie (Leanne Best) and Chris’ witty mother Cynthia (Clare Perkins). Managed by local peacemaker Stan (an exceptional Stuart McQuarrie), the bar is a second home for the floor workers at the city’s premier employer, the fictional Olstead, a family-run steel tubing plant.
Each character is a storyteller with Mike’s Tavern as the public therapy room, where secrets are buried, but not deep enough. They gossip about failed relationships – Jessie’s ex-husband ran off with someone younger while Cynthia kicked out her unemployed spouse Brucie (Wil Johnson), fed up with his dope smoking and mooching: “Fishing in the fridge like he put something in there.”
What connects them all is the plant – the lifeblood of the town. The place they poured their blood, sweat and tears into for decades to secure up to $40 an hour. Getting a job at Olstead is like entering an exclusive club, one that you cannot afford to leave.
When a supervisor role becomes available, Cynthia decides to go for it. As one of the very few African Americans employed by the company, she has the chance to make history. After initially dismissing the opportunity, staunch unionist Tracey decides to apply. When Cynthia is recruited, a jealous Tracey finds comfort in racism, claiming she only got the job because the company gets tax breaks for “promoting minorities”.
Chris fares no better when he tells Jason that he plans to fund himself to go to college. “We are a team. You can’t leave.” Like a carbon copy of their mothers’ relationship, racial tensions surface, but underneath, the real fear is of change and losing the nostalgia that keeps them bonded as friends and as a community.
Their unwavering loyalty to Olstead is betrayed as machinery is secretly shipped out and adverts are circulated to the Latino community for temporary jobs at $11 an hour. In return, they are expected to take a 60 percent pay cut for working more hours. Everything around them is crumbling: marriages, friendships, bank accounts, identities, mental health and self-esteem.
By act two we see the heartbreaking fallout of Olstead’s lockout of its staff and move towards cheap labour by the back door. The disturbing act of violence that leads Jason and Chris to be incarcerated, shattering their American Dream, is a difficult watch.
There are so many layers to this play, but they are all beautifully contained by the stripped-back, industrial staging by Frankie Bradshaw and smart direction of former Donmar resident assistant director and incoming artistic director at Bush Theatre Lynette Linton. She is an actors’ director, giving them space to shine and for Nottage’s amazingly taut script to fly, unfettered.
The cast is simply superb. From Clare Perkins’ charming but misguided Cynthia to Martha Plimpton’s brassy fire-starter Tracey to Wil Johnson’s broken and bitter Brucie to Patrick Gibson’s tortured Jason. You may not like or agree with them, but you feel their pain.
Nottage skillfully conveys the complexity of class, shame and racism, including how people of colour, with a shared history with their white community, are usually the ones who to appease, compromise and live small to fit in.
Sweat is a powerhouse of a play from a living literary legend that offers us an opportunity to reframe the pernicious misrepresentation of the lives of ‘othered’ and marginalised communities.
Sweat is at Donmar Warehouse, London until 26 January 2019.
Picture credit: Leanne Best (Jessie), Martha Plimpton (Tracey), Clare Perkins (Cynthia) by Johan Persson