Photo by Olimac Media
Clear tension exists between Brucie (Warren Welds) and his estranged wife, Cynthia (Chasity Hart) in Main Street Players’ production of Sweat.
By AARON KRAUSE
“What the f–k is NAFTA? Sounds like a laxative,” a woman opines.
She is speaking in Lynn Nottage’s explosive, wildly engrossing, layered, and thought-provoking Pulitzer Prize and multi-Tony Award-winning 2015 play, Sweat. It runs through May 14 in a stellar production by the professional, nonprofit company Main Street Players in Miami Lakes.
Fittingly, a character mentions “NAFTA” and “laxative” in almost the same sentence in Sweat, a cautionary tragic drama set during the turbulent 2000s. After all, the North American Free Trade Agreement, along with other hardships during the 2000s, likely carried an effect similar to that of a laxative for some working Americans. Indeed, these difficulties may have caused long, pent up feelings of anger and frustration to gush from these people.
NAFTA, enacted in 1994, created a free trade zone for Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Most economic analyses indicate that the agreement benefited North American economies and the average citizen. However, it harmed workers in industries exposed to trade competition. Sweat takes place during a time when officials outsourced longstanding factory jobs to other countries as a result of NAFTA.
This play belongs in the same group as other great American tragedies. Certainly, Sweat serves as a powerful reminder that unrestrained, explosive emotions during especially tense, sensitive times can lead to tragic consequences. Undoubtedly, the play feels vital during the deeply divisive and tense time during which we live.
Nottage, the first female playwright to have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, did her homework before writing the play. Specifically, she began working on Sweat in 2011 by interviewing Reading, Pa. residents. At the time, Reading was one of the poorest cities in America, with a poverty rate of more than 40 percent.
Seeing the effects of job loss and the economic struggle Reading’s residents were facing inspired Nottage. And, in Sweat, she does a fine job of showing us the human cost of socio-economic change. These people are hardly perfect, but Nottage presents them, warts and all, without judging them.
In Sweat, we meet several Reading factory workers in 2000 and 2008. These individuals are co-workers and close friends who face the possibility of losing their jobs due to a downturn in the economy.
Specifically, Tracey, Jessie, Jason, and Chris become bitter as company officials threaten to take away their jobs and cut their wages after costs to operate the plant increase. At the same time, their co-worker and friend, Cynthia, applies for and receives a promotion. This angers the others; they feel Cynthia grows too cozy with management and no longer has their best interests at heart.
After Tracey, Jessie, Jason, Chris, and Jessie refuse to take a pay cut, management locks them out of the factory. Oscar (a soft-spoken, seemingly carefree Phillip Andrew Santiago) is a busboy at a bar that the friends and co-workers frequent. Later in the play, he begins working at the factory as one of the locked-out employees’ replacement workers. This angers the co-workers and friends, who take Oscar’s temporary employment personally. Consequently, tempers flare. And tragedy results.
Nottage has set most of the action in the bar. It is a place where the characters gather to drown their troubles in alcohol, escape their problems, and freely speak their mind without worrying about consequences (that is, assuming nobody from management is present). However, drinking alcohol can also loosen people’s inhibitions and bring out underlying emotions. And when those emotions come gushing out like a waterfall, bad things can happen.
Nottage, who writes lyrically and with deep sympathy and sensitivity for marginalized groups, has ingeniously structured the play. She has done so in such a way that the suspense remains high and the action tense as the play hurtles toward an explosive climax.
Sweat begins in 2008. That is when Jason and Chris meet with their probation officer (a no-nonsense, aggressive Sterling Tribue) after each served eight-year prison sentences following a conflict in which both were involved. As the play flashes back to 2000, we hope to learn the nature of that conflict. However, Nottage keeps us in suspense until the end.
Although the action shifts between 2000 and 2008, it is never hard to follow the play or MSP’s stellar production. That is a credit to Nottage’s clear, straightforward writing and Sefanja Richard Galon’s solid direction.
Perhaps the biggest compliment we can give Galon is that his direction is invisible. And when that is the case, you know that a director has done his or her job. Indeed, MSP’s production unfolds so seamlessly and realistically that Galon seems like just one necessary part of an efficient operation. The entire cast and behind-the-scenes artists work as one to communicate Galon’s vision.
Sweat is a fitting title for this play for a couple of reasons. For starters, it suggests the metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears that these characters have poured not only into their work but the friendships and relationships they have built over many years. Certainly, witnessing these relationships crumble under the weight of circumstances beyond their control must sting. Indeed, some of these characters find themselves in impossible situations. And Nottage, without condoning the characters’ bad behavior, demonstrates an Arthur Miller-like compassion for these people.
The play’s title can also refer to the figurative heat that Nottage packs into Sweat. Indeed, moments of rage and violence abound in this play. A dart board is part of set designer Amanda Sparhawk’s detailed design of the unnamed bar. But darts are not flying in the establishment during the play. Instead, the characters hurl plenty of four-letter words and insults at each other. And they land with pinpoint precision. While Nottage writes evocatively and elegantly, she demonstrates a keen ear for the rough manner in which these characters tend to speak while upset.
Certainly, Sweat’s intended audience consists of mature theatergoers. With the amount of violence and foul language present in Sweat, it is best to keep young children away.
While darkness abounds in Sweat, Nottage also injects the play with heart, humor, and humanity. For instance, we listen as the characters talk about their deferred or broken dreams and reminisce about past pleasant times.
In Cynthia’s case, she must feel like her many years of hard work at the factory are finally rewarding her with a supervisory job. But then the lockout happens. Suddenly, Tracey finds herself caught in an unenviable, impossible situation. All of the sudden, Tracey is the villain among her friends, who feel that she is betraying them. In fact, Cynthia’s son, Chris, is one of the employees that company officials (including Cynthia) locked out after they refused to accept concessions and a pay cut.
On the one hand, Cynthia does not want to lose the opportunity that working as a manager presents to her. But at the same time, she does not want to lose her friends.
“You f—king traitor,” Tracey says.
“How does it feel to s—t on your friends” Jessie adds.
“You don’t know what it’s been like to walk in my shoes,” Cynthia counters. “I locked out my own son – my own son!”
And in MSP’s Carbonell Award-deserving production, Chasity Hart says the latter line with the right mix of disbelief and horror. A wide-eyed, commanding Hart deftly conveys her character’s sense of overwhelm. Indeed, Hart’s Cynthia must feel like people are playing tug of war with her arms. On one side is management, pulling in one direction. Meanwhile, pulling on the other side are the people who were Cynthia’s friends before she received a promotion.
Cynthia’s best friend was Tracey. This opinionated character is proud of the work that she and her family performed at the company.
In an intense, yet natural performance, Laura Argo gives us a fiery, proud, and defiant Tracey. Bitterness sometimes escapes Argo’s voice, and the frown she sometimes forms accentuates her character’s feelings.
Tracey can be a difficult character to like. Even so, Argo injects her with enough redeeming qualities to make her at least somewhat sympathetic. For instance, Argo’s Tracey is clearly dedicated to her work and respects her relatives’ work at the plant.
Tracey’s son is Jason, an outgoing, fun-loving young man prone to losing his temper. A hulking Garrett Colon imbues Jason with an intimidating presence. Indeed, he can come across as a bully and hateful individual. But Colon also projects a teasing, fun-loving demeanor.
One of Jason’s closest friends is Chris, whom Kyran Wright portrays at first as a bundle of nerves. During the opening scene, Wright’s Chris shakes as his probation officer questions him. A tear trickles down his face. As the play progresses, Wright turns Chris into a determined, ambitious, more confident young man with dreams. In addition, Wright makes Chris’s frustration and disappointment palpable.
Speaking of dreams, Tracey and Cynthia’s former friend, Jessie, once longed to travel the world. Then, life happened. Specifically, she started working at the plant and never left. After Jessie loses her job, Jocelyn Lombardo imbues Jessie with a relatable longing to be elsewhere. Jessie is sometimes drunk during the play, and Lombardo injects her character with believable unsteadiness and unruliness.
Frank Montoto shines as Stan, a former plant employee who became a bartender after getting injured at work. Montoto lends Stan believable compassion for the plant’s workers. In addition, the actor imbues Stan with credible cynicism and intensity when he talks about the plant and its management. You get the sense that Stan is not too fond of the plant’s managers Also, when necessary, Montoto lends Stan a ferocious outburst of anger that sounds forceful, yet natural.
While most of the characters work at the same steel plant, Chris’s father, Brucie, is locked out of a textile mill where he worked. He, like the other characters, frequents the bar.
Warren Welds projects a weariness that makes sense for the character. After all, he has fallen on hard times and has turned to drugs to numb his pain. Still, you have to admire Brucie for attending a rehabilitation program. Some of the play’s heated moments occur when Brucie argues with Cynthia, his estranged wife. Obviously, Brucie wants to win his wife back over, and we hear sincere pleading in Welds’ voice as he tries to convince Cynthia that he has changed for the better.
Behind the scenes, sound designer Alex Tarradell incorporates appropriate effects. For instance, loud music reinforces the intensity of a fight scene. Also, in between scenes, we hear snippets of news coverage and a ticking clock. These sounds enhance the production’s tension.
Costume designer Amanda Ortega’s character-defining, locale-specifying outfits, lighting designer Angie Esposito’s realistic lighting, and Amanda Sparhawk’s detailed, inviting set also contribute to the production.
MSP’s production of Sweat is one of the finest efforts I have seen from the company, which used to be a community theatre before turning professional. It would be a shame to miss it.
Main Street Players’ production of Sweat runs through May 14 at Main Street Playhouse, 6812 Main St. in Miami Lakes. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday as well as 2 p.m. Sunday. General admission tickets are $30, while students, seniors, and military personnel pay $25 for admission. For more information, go to mainstreetplayers.com.
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