[A version of this review first appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/sep/29/feeling-punch/]
It often takes a generation or more before we can grapple very honestly with our most complicated stories, especially if they involve people at the margins, or people who aren't in a position to control the dominant narrative. It takes even longer if the marginalized are the protagonists of the story. Think of how long it took, for example, for someone to make a feature film with Martin Luther King Jr. as its protagonist; how much longer will it be before we begin to see more plays and films that delve honestly into the experiences of, say, black schoolchildren in the segregated South, or undocumented immigrants in the era of fences at the U.S. border?
In many ways, we are still in the middle of the so-called economic restructuring at the center of "Sweat," Lynn Nottage's new play currently experiencing its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland -- and that is part of why it feels so bold. Commissioned as part of OSF's American Revolutions program, supporting new plays that focus on moments of change in American history, "Sweat" is set in the rust-belt community of Reading, Penn., formerly a manufacturing stronghold where a union card was the ticket to a solid living and middle-class respect, however modest. Now, however, Reading is one of the very poorest cities in America, with more than 40 percent of its residents living below the poverty line in the aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). "Sweat" explores some of how that transformation has been experienced by working class people, whose lives have changed course dramatically.
The play is constructed around an ensemble cast -- three middle-aged women who have worked in a particular factory for more than 20 years; the sons of two of the women, beginning what they fully expect will be the basis for a solid living if they want it; a bartender who worked for decades in the same factory before becoming injured on the job; a man who has been locked out of his factory job for an extended period; a probation officer; and a young man who hasn't been able to break into the union. The play moves back and forth in time between 2008, after two of the characters have served time in prison, and 2000, before all of the characters felt the impact of the NAFTA shifts.
Like many Americans, I have a passing awareness of economic upheaval over the past 15 years or so, as manufacturing jobs have increasingly moved overseas. But the specifics have largely escaped me; they are definitely not the focus of the dominant news stories. Nottage's new play goes there -- and not from the vantage point of folks with any say in such matters. Having spent two years engaging with members of the Reading community, Nottage has built a story around characters who begin (mostly) as friends, and end up at odds -- but like the rotating set of this play, she circles these stories. The play's movement swirls like a cyclone; in the beginning we know things went bd but we don't know how and don't understand the relationships between these characters. As we swirl back and forth in time and through the shock of lock-outs and increasingly draconian moves from management, we get a sense of the crisis closing in. When we finally reach the conflict that changes the life trajectory of several of these characters, we almost feel the punches ourselves.
One of the things I most appreciate about this play is that the characters occupy no one position. Too often in films and television and theater, working class people aren't portrayed with much complexity; not so here. For example, several white and black characters all have (or had) union jobs, yet the white characters speak with a sense of entitlement that the black characters don't quite share. All of them talk as though their union card is the ticket to their American dreams, yet the black characters speak as later entrants into that club; they are still aspiring, looking for ways to climb, or exploring other options. The characters also vary in their reactions to the loss of their hopes. And none of them notice that the American-born son of Dominican parents who cleans up after them at the bar they frequent can't break into the union no matter how hard he tries.
As the world of the union workers begins to crumble, we see how easily they can be pitted against each other. Their anger and powerlessness quickly becomes anger at one another; with no agency and no access to the real decision makers, they blame each other for betrayals that are varying degrees of real and imagined. These are folks we might recognize, good people struggling under extreme pressure. Their anger and fear is understandable and sympathetic, even if their responses to one another are far from heroic.
The reality for all these characters is messy. I must admit that I had not focused on the specifics that this play brings to light; the characters go from being able to save for a very nice vacation to working multiple menial jobs in order to pay the rent in a slum or falling into addiction. The uniformly excellent cast makes you live in the skin of these characters, and conveys a real sense of how quickly and cataclysmically their worlds shifted -- showing up to work to find that the machines have been sold; lockouts that lasted for endless months; contract offers involving paycuts as high as 60 percent; the pressures that lead a person to cross a union picket line.
This is not territory well-covered in American theater, and OSF is capitalizing on the opportunities for dialogue that this play presents with its "Living Ideas" series of discussions, some of which can be accessed online. (www.osfashland.org/experience-osf/upcoming/living-ideas.aspx.) Whether or not you join in on those conversations, this is a play to watch. It is playing in Ashland until the end of October, and then moving to Arena Stage in Washington, DC. I expect the play will live on, and will bring needed attention to the lives of many whose experience of the knife edge of what we term progress tends to be ignored.