Jackson, Mississippi, and Reading, Pennsylvania, may be 1,100 miles apart, but parallels in the wake of economic downturn, with small towns in decline and relationships frayed, resonate with the cast of the Reading-set drama “Sweat” at New Stage Theatre. They feel certain it will with audiences, too, watching blue-collar workers struggle as changes chip away at the cohesion that once kept their community tight-knit and assured generations that the American Dream was theirs for the taking.
“Sweat” continues through May 5 at New Stage. Playwright Lynn Nottage won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize (her second) for “Sweat,” an evocative look at a city in the “de-industrial revolution,” with humor, heart, passion and gripping drama.
After seeing a 2011 story that named Reading the poorest city of its size in America, Nottage traveled there for research over two years, meeting with people and local groups to learn about the town’s proud past, what it had become and how its citizens were faring. Nottage was recently named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and “Sweat” ranked the second most-produced play of the 2018-19 theater season in America.
Set in 2000 and 2008 Reading, “Sweat” is bookended by the release on parole of two young men, one white and one black, with flashbacks that explore issues leading up to their crime. When Rust Belt manufacturing went away, poverty struck populations in its wake and tensions simmered with the changes. Most of “Sweat” takes place in a tavern, the watering hole where factory floor colleagues share drinks, laughs and stories. But layoffs and picket lines erode their trust as they’re pitted against each other and fight to stay afloat.
For Sharon Miles, in the role of Cynthia, the play echoed her experience in West Point, when the Bryan Foods plant where her dad worked shut down. “It shook the entire community.” That was happening across the country. “I think there’s something to be said in this play about the restructuring of the middle class, or the decline of the middle class,” she says. “Even now, we talk about certain jobs that will never come back” — jobs that, though tough, provided a lifestyle for many. “This opened up a new sensitivity to those conversations,” she says.
Director Francine Thomas Reynolds and actress Jo Ann Robinson (as factory worker Tracey), felt similar reverberations — in the iron ore mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the “American Graffiti”-like bustle of Miami, Oklahoma, respectively. “It was the same situation of people living through strikes, walkouts, threats to their jobs, negotiations” as the boom and bust cycle of iron ore production followed that of steel, Reynolds says.
When the Goodrich Plant closed in Miami, depression hit the cool small town of her high school years, Robinson says. It’s a familiar culture in “Sweat,” where high school friends started working on the line together, and gathered at the tavern for decades. “It’s their life, and their clique and their family.”
“This is a generational life that we’re in,” Ward Emling, as the bartender Sam, says of their characters’ deep stake in Reading, where fathers and grandfathers worked at the mill and built the town.
“So much of the play is about what happens when things change — when the American Dream for generations, is different than the generation before them,” Reynolds says. “Is the American Dream still alive, and if so, who has access to it? And, who deserves access to it? How did we find ourselves in a situation where we’re polarized?
“How did we get to this situation, where we’re blaming others for actions that aren’t the fault of others?” as larger entities — corporations, politics — control the situation, leaving individuals lost and disillusioned.
The interest is in profit, not people, Emling says, sharing a key line from “Sweat,” “They don’t understand that human decency is the core of everything.”
The takeaways are rich for reflection, but “It’s also funny,” Robinson says of “Sweat,” with its portrait of real people dealing with real-life relationships and the turns friendships take.
In its three-dimensional characters and their struggles to navigate the pressures of a changing landscape, “Sweat” touches on many contemporary hot-button topics — racism, immigration, opioid addiction, “us and them” conflicts. “It’s kind of like a microcosm for the entire country,” Reynolds says.
“The ties that used to bind us started to unravel,” Emling says, and as times get tougher, to search for scapegoats is on.
Audiences may be left with a vague sense of nostalgia, likely tied to personal experience and perspective, Reynolds says. Previous eras may have seemed simpler, but many were locked out of opportunities. “Now, everybody needs to have access to the American Dream, there’s just not enough of the American Dream to go around. … Everybody has to come to grips with that.” What’s ahead?
“I think there’s hope,” Emling says. And, possibility.
“Sweat” is recommended for ages 16 and older. The characters’ vernacular contains strong language that may strike some as coarse. As Emling puts it, “It ain’t network television. It’s cable.”
Performances of “Sweat” continue through May 5 with showtimes at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $30 adult/$25 seniors and students at the box office, newstagetheatre.com and 601-948-3531.