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How Did We End Up With Trump? 'Sweat' Has Answers

March 24, 2017
By Joe Maniscalco

"Sweat" actors John Earl Jelks, Michelle Wilson, Johanna Day and Alison Wright. (c) Joan Marcus

New York, NY - “Sweat,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s stirring blue collar drama opening on Broadway March 26, has been leaving audiences in awe ever since its world-premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival two years ago. But now, with the oligarchic Donald Trump occupying the Oval Office, the story of a group of locked out Reading, Pennsylvania plant workers losing their grip on the American Dream, has taken on a deeper significance that’s stunning even to its creators. 

“When we did the play in Oregon, Trump was nowhere near a major conversation piece,” “Sweat” Director Kate Whoriskey recently told LaborPress. “People really appreciated the play; they loved the play in Oregon — but there’s a different love for it now. It has a different kind of underbelly and meaning. I think people have a hunger to understand how America has gotten into the place it’s gotten to.”

“Sweat” explores the effects of the 1-percent’s decades-long dissolution of America’s working class within the confines of a Keystone State watering hole, that despite its rundown state, serves as a precarious haven for the endangered plant workers who gather there.  

Actor Michelle Wilson, in the pivotal role of “Cynthia,” has experienced much of the theatrical sea change sweeping over “Sweat” audiences having been with the show since it began its previous run at the Public Theater last year. 

Will Pullen and Khris Davis. (c) Joan Marcus

“We did a show a day after the election,” Wilson told LaborPress. “And prior, audiences where like, ‘This is a great show, and it’s terrible that happened.’ But the day after the election…the audience was stunned. They didn’t move. The overall sense was…this is what happened.”

With issues of race, poverty, unemployment and mass incarceration abound in Nottage’s penetrating script, Whoriskey knew, instinctively, that they had something that would, indeed, resonate with the country at large. 

“The way that Lynn writes, it felt  like she was cutting to the marrow of a lot of the crises in America,” Whoriskey says. “She is taking a lot of themes that are in the zeitgeist. We definitely did feel like the play had a lot of resonance and meaning. But we didn’t know how much it would change because of the election.”

As dark as “Sweat” can get, given the gravity of its themes — it is also its humor, heart and soul that is affecting audiences and making even veteran Ironworkers misty after the houselights come up. 

“I think the reason why it works so well is because there is so much love and humor,” Wilson says. “And just really just good nature. You get to know who these people are. So, you’re heart breaks with, and for, them. But I don’t want to make it sound doom and gloom…because that’s just not the American way. We’re so resilient.”

Whoriskey, who previously worked with Nottage on 2009’s acclaimed “Ruined,” calls the playwright’s latest offering a “wonderful American story.”

“What’s  really exciting to me is, I can see people [in the audience] with age diversity, and racial diversity, and political diversity. So, on it’s best day, it feels really democratic. And it feels like you’re in an audience of people who are together experiencing things.”

The resonance is so powerful, that Whoriskey says she can actually “feel different opinions” emanating from “Sweat” audiences nightly. 

“Cynthia” will say something, and I can feel certain people say, ‘I know that experience,’” the director says. “And other people, when “Tracey” (Johanna  Day) says something, the same thing. You can start to feel the identification with different characters. And that is the thing that makes it feel like this wonderful American story.”

Michelle Wilson and Johanna Day. (c) Joan Marcus

With so many audience members leaving “Sweat,” deeply moved about the plight of the working class — could this play about one particular group of working men and women help spur change for all working people struggling to survive Trump’s America? 

“You think about a coal worker who’s out of work, and there is this labor force that is so dedicated,” Wilson says. “What if we could start making solar panels in West Virginia? But there are corporations that are going to work very hard for that not to happen. I think that’s why New York can be very important because you can have a lot of people who make decisions see it…and wonder...'How do we harness all of this passion, and hard work, and commitment of the labor class, to innovation.' I do believe we can think our way out of this — we just have to get to it.”

“Sweat” is now playing at Studio 54, located at 254 West 54th Street. Tickets, as low as $59, are available at sweatbroadway.com, or by calling 212-239-6200. 

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