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By Lynn Nottage
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Sweat won Lynn Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize, the first woman to achieve this feat and if you’re still wondering where Trumpism came from, this play provides a good part of the answer.
Although she started researching it in 2011, and it got to Broadway in 2016, it is one of the most powerful documents of the human consequences of the recent de-industrialisation of America.
Set in the rustbelt city of Reading, Pennsylvania, it’s a savage indictment of devastated lives after the outsourcing of factories and labour to Mexico. But it is no polemic and what will make it live on is the detail and compassion in the writing. Reading was tight knit blue collar community where each generation was sent to work in the big local plant. The work might have been gruelling but it was well paid and gave dignity and status to a whole community. When the plug was pulled on them no thought was given either by legislators or factory owners involved to the human consequences.
After a prologue we’re in Mike’s Bar, perfectly evoked by Frankie Bradshaw. Set in 2000 the TV in the background is playing out the Bush-Gore election campaign but nobody here is paying any attention. We meet three long-time friends from the factory floor, Tracey (Martha Plimpton), Cynthia (Clare Perkins), and Jessie (Leanne Best) who are letting off some steam and celebrating a birthday.
Looking on is barman Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) more cynical than the others about the plant having been let go himself after an injury at work and the young Columbian bar help Oscar (Sebastian Viveros), who silently tends to them all.
You get a real sense of the depth of affection and respect between Tracey and Cynthia. Even their sons are really close, having grown up together. Director Lynette Linton gives these scenes an incredible physicality and draws deeply felt performances from this great ensemble. Plimpton, the sole American in the cast, is utterly commanding as the abrasive Tracey but Clare Perkins is the beating heart of the piece and it’s a performance that will linger long after. We also meet her ex Brucie (Wil Johnson) now lost in a haze of dope having also been cast aside from his work following a year-long strike.
When Cynthia becomes the first black woman in the plant to be promoted from the assembly line, Tracey is irked and in time she blames it on positive discrimination policies. Not long after Cynthia assumes the role, one she’s fought for her whole life, disaster looms as the plant announces savage cuts to pay and conditions. In her new management role she is eventually forced to lock-out her old friends and Oscar becomes one of the immigrant workers the management uses to undercut the local workforce.
It’s testament to Nottage’s skill that she doesn’t sentimentalise these characters. These are no saints, they do the wrong things and blurt out the wrong words and Nottage’s language has a wonderful earthy robustness to it.
Oscar feels no debt to anyone here and gladly crosses the picket line. He describes how this same white workforce ensured that he and his father were kept out of the well paid unionised jobs and had to settle for a life of sweeping floors. He now seizes his chance but it incurs a backlash. There’s no better illustration of the depressing human trend whereby when the economy tanks, communities, rather than reaching for greater solidarity, turn instead to emphasising their ethnic differences. This is particularly painful when long-time friends are ripped asunder.
Nottage proves here that she is the Arthur Miller de nos jours and indeed she tops him, in that she manages to also weave a complex web of racial and sexual politics on top of a story of a community in economic meltdown. It’s one of the plays of the year.