Some stories are critical to get right. The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s latest production, Sweat, is one of those stories. Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play traces the ripple effect of layoffs among a group of steelworkers. While Nottage’s play is set in nearby Reading, Pennsylvania, this story is acutely familiar here in the Steel City.
Director Justin Emeka scarcely takes a wrong turn in this production. Emeka’s strong direction allows each performer to shine exquisitely while still maintaining a balanced ensemble. The play centers on two connected groups of friends, the first a trio of steelworkers in their mid-40s: Tracey (Amy Landis), Cynthia (Tracey Conyer Lee), and Jessie (Michelle Duffy). The dynamic between the three women is authentic, and you feel like you’re watching long-time friends. The ease between them is as palpable as the disruptive tensions that evolve between them.
The other set of friends are Tracey’s son, Jason (Patrick Cannon) and Cynthia’s son, Chris (Ananias J. Dixon). They are both employed at the same steel mill as their mothers. While the boys are besties, Jason is the less intelligent of the two. Costume designer Robert C.T. Steele reinforces this with Jason’s backwards baseball cap whereas Chris is better dressed and more well-spoken. Chris talks about going to college to become a teacher. This ambition elicits laughter given he’ll earn less than he would in the mills. Education is seen as unnecessary in light of immediate wage potential without recognizing its intrinsic value or ability to serve a longer game.
Michael Schweikardt’s stellar set design swivels smoothly on checkerboard linoleum that transports us between the play’s 2000 and 2008 settings with a minimum of fuss that maintains the play’s momentum. The 2000 space is Howie’s, a neighborhood bar with a Yuengling beer banner and vinyl stools. The 2008 space doubles as a rundown apartment and office space for a parole officer complete with a battered filing cabinet. All of this is enhanced by superior lighting design from Sherrice Mojgani. Soft light falls over the stage in a fractured web pattern. Between scenes, video footage of small-town main streets rolls across the stage, reminding us that what we see in Reading is happening in countless places.
One quibble would be the play’s time period. The story seems more 1980s than 2000s. That’s not to say layoffs in steel (or any industry) were timeboxed by the 80s. However, by the 21st century, the threat of being replaced by automation and overseas labor seemed more like a given than a surprise. Then again, perhaps it’s a testimony to the fact one feels one’s bubble will remain unchanged – or change is a futuristic abstraction that will happen after one retires, not an ugly bump in the now.
In hard times, Tracey’s sense of security gets threatened, and she lashes out at Cynthia and Oscar (Jerreme Rodriguez) as an African-American and Columbian respectively. Landis captures Tracey’s sense of white entitlement that rises and manifests as racism. It comes forward with ugly phrases like “I’m not prejudiced, but they wanted a minority,” when Cynthia is hired for a job Tracey also applied for. Prop-wise, Cynthia totes a high-end, luxury Louis Vuitton handbag throughout the show. It awkwardly stands out at the start when she works on the floor and would have been a nice post-promotion swap to reinforce her change in status visually. Lee expertly straddles Cynthia’s range of subject positions as she negotiates being a friend, a manager, a minority as both an African-American and a woman, and a subject of discrimination.
Tracey blames Oscar for the strike’s failure to resolve when he breaks the picket line as scab labor. For Oscar, the mill is a shot at upward mobility, paying more than his job at Howie’s. Tracey is content to let Oscar sweep the bar floor as long as she can hurl the occasional racist insult his way. However, when his presence threatens her way of life, she is quick to incite wrath in her equally small-minded son. Oscar becomes an attackable, available target that stands for an incomprehensible whole.
More broadly, Nottage’s narrative becomes about the failure to learn – and learn from history. Howie’s manager Stan (Tony Bingham in a quietly powerful performance) tries to instill in Oscar that he’ll ultimately be squeezed out for lower wages, so it’s not worth scabbing. Oscar has no loyalty to the strikers, and the immediacy of a larger paycheck wins. In this way, each generation ends up experiencing the pain of similarly hard lessons. The picketers refuse the deal offered to the union because the wage cuts feel beneath them. Like their predecessors, they get wiped into oblivion by a new crop of laborers like Oscar who are eager to work for less money and fewer benefits.
Labor history is not studded with the triumphs of the masses, and Sweat shows us people fading into oblivion. The mill moves out the machines on July 4th, and it’s a harsh irony that the workers lose their identity as they’re celebrating America’s independence. Emeka doesn’t let us easily dismiss Tracey as a racist simpleton. It’s quietly poignant when she sits at the bar and recounts sitting on her couch and just picking at her cuticles. Her job gave her purpose, and without it, her hands are empty. Without a readily available replacement, these characters face real-world challenges as they piece together subsistence wage jobs or just tap out and succumb to drug addiction, outcomes that both materialize in Sweat.
Steel may no longer be the economic foundation of Pittsburgh’s present or future, but steel and sweat/Sweat represent our city’s historical backbone. Both Pittsburgh and the Public can stand proud, having gotten this story right.
The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Sweat continues through December 9th, and tickets can be purchased online.
Photos courtesy of Michael Henninger.
Tiffany Raymond has her PhD in 20th century American drama from the University of Southern California where her research focused on labor and social protest theatre. She also has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Southern California and one from the University of Tennessee. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In addition to being a theatre nerd, she’s also a tech geek, avid reader and occasional half-marathon runner.
Categories: Archived Reviews