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Sunday 23 June 2019

Sweat, Play, written by Lynn Nottage directed by Lynette Linton, Gielgud Theatre, London, 7.5* out of 10

Black American woman playwright Lynn Nottage’s multi- award-winning drama charts the collapse of formerly stable and secure structures in America’s industrial rustbelt at the turn of the 21st century due to neoliberalism and globalization. I found it somewhat predictable and bleak, but Sweat, originally at the Donmar Warehouse now at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s Westend, is a high-quality production well written, directed and with strong acting performances by a talented ensemble. 

Reading, Pennsylvania in the period from the Bill Clinton to the George W. Bush Presidency. At the start of the play, it is 2008 we meet two young men who have just left prison having committed a crime involving violence and meet each with the local parole officer Evan (Sule Rimi). Jason (Patrick Gibson) is a young white adult donning white supremacist tattoos and angry with the world. Chris (Osy Ikhile) is about the same age black; he is angry with himself for having thrown away a chance of a good life through one act of thoughtless violence brought about by a feeling of powerlessness and frustration. We flashback to 2000 to a bar in the Pennsylvania rustbelt where a group of friends including Jason, Chris, their mothers, Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Cynthia (Clare Perkins) and their mothers' friend Jessie (Leanne Best) meet after work. Everyone except Jason’s father Brucie (Will Johnson) work at the local manufacturing plant and are members of the local union. This makes them privileged manual workers as they earn good salaries. The manager of the bar Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) also used to work at the plant until an accident led to him being laid off. The young Hispanic immigrant Oscar (Sebastián Capitán Viveros) helps with the work in the Bar. We follow the group of friends for the next 8 years as their comfortable economic situation gives way to increasing economic and social precariousness. This is caused by the politics of neoliberalism and globalisation during the Bill Clinton and George W Bush presidencies. The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada, and the USA negatively affects the manual workers in the Pennsylvania rust belt. It undermines the bargaining power of their union as the owners of manufacturing plants can credibly threaten to move these to Mexico where wages and pension benefits are a fraction of those in the US. Wages are reduced and any attempts at strike action are costly for the workers and doomed to fail. Each of the people who used to be friendly drinking at the bar reacts differently to the threat of economic and social decline and doom they are facing and this leads to conflicts breaking out among them.

Sweat written in 2015 is the second play by the female black American writer Lynn Nottage to win the Pulitzer Prize. The first was the deeply affecting Ruined (2009) about women and rape as a tactic of war in the Congolese civil war. It premiered shortly before Donald Trump’s inauguration wit perfect timing showing how the high earning workers of the rustbelt who had always voted Democrat had felt abandoned by the Clintons, if not by the entire Democratic Party and felt that they had bigger problems of survival, alcohol, drugs than voting Democrat at a presidential election. Sweat looks sympathetically at these non-voters or even potential trump-voters of the rust-belt states and was the first play to deal with that subject. Under Lynette Linton’s capable direction, it was premiered in London at the Donmar Warehouse in January 2019 and won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. 

Sweat is indeed a good play with not only an excellent acting ensemble but also a very successful creative team.

For my own taste though it is a bit too predictable. Notably, it is all the white characters that give themselves up fastest, while the black and Hispanic characters (with one exception who has already tried but failed) are attempting to exercise some agency against the overwhelming forces of capitalism and globalization which threaten to crush them. Racial and gender-based resentments come to the surface once economic pressures are perceived as overwhelming. Nevertheless, I can recommend Sweat as the kind of high-quality well-acted play for which I will always gladly spend money and time in the theatre.

Lynn Nottage

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