Once audiences are confronted with the human cost of the American Dream, economics and politics will never look the same. On Friday night at Pickard Theater, tales of American workers take center stage as the Department of Theater debuts the Maine premiere of the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning play “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage.
Set in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, once a center of industry so famous its name is on the Monopoly board but impoverished in the early 2000s, the play’s central characters grapple with the changing world. As the factory so integral to their identity moves abroad, a tight-knit group of workers witness their union weakening, their worth discarded and their hard-won futures slipping away. Along racial and ethnic fault lines, they begin to crack.
Professor of Theater Davis Robinson believes that the play’s basis in interviews with real workers lends an inescapable realism to the events depicted.
“People get desperate, and they turn to drugs, they turn to violence, they turn on each other,” said Robinson. “And when there are just crumbs left on the table, people start fighting over the crumbs.”
Questions of blame and identity persist through the eight-year time span as scenes alternate between 2000 and 2008, tracing the arc of two election cycles and a financial crisis, and painting vivid pictures of much-invoked American ills: opioid abuse, unemployment, persecution of immigrants and class resentment.
Though it premiered in 2015, Nottage’s play takes on added weight in the context of the 2016 election and the search for answers after what was, for many, a blindsiding verdict from middle America.
“Every now and then, a play comes along that has a kind of seismic finger on the pulse of the country,” said Robinson.
“Sweat” was one such play. Robinson immediately pushed for the production rights, drawn by its profound empathy, as well as a sense of urgency.
“It’s an examination of the forces that led to so much despair in the industrial Midwest,” said Robinson. “It asks, ‘What can we do to try to solve this together, rather than blame [others], turn on each other, turn on the immigrants, build a wall [or] further the outrage?’—that’s clearly not getting us anywhere.”
The events of “Sweat” are far from distant. Robinson stresses that these issues affect towns in every part of America, including Maine.
“Reading, Pennsylvania—it’s Sanford, Maine. It’s Lewiston, Maine. It’s the lumber mills. It’s the mills in Brunswick that are now antique stores. We’re at a turning point, and there’s a lot of anger and pain for people that are slipping through the cracks,” said Robinson.
“Sweat” does not shy away from these emotions, in content or in diction. Actors confront that anger and pain head-on, giving these lived experiences a second life. For Robinson, the rehearsal process was about ensuring that students owned these stories despite their complexity.
“It becomes a visceral experience, rather than just an intellectual exercise,” he said.
With its colorful language and elevation of working-class lives, “Sweat” seeks to expand the sphere of influence of live theater. Written by a black female playwright and featuring a racially balanced cast, “Sweat” is also about ensuring that the doors to Pickard Theater and the performing arts at large are flung wide open.
“Everyone should feel like they are welcome; that it’s not an exclusive or elite or white institution,” said Robinson. “We want this building to be a place that can tap into what’s going on in the world.”
“Sweat” offers no easy answers or resolutions. Its ending tableau gazes forward into an uncertain future with a single, tenuous suggestion: take care of one another.
“Sweat” will be performed tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in Pickard Theater. There will also be a talkback session with the cast at 7 p.m. Monday on March 4 in Room 601 of Memorial Hall open to any interested students or community members.