There were multiple moments down the stretch of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Sweat,” running at A Contemporary Theatre through May 22, that made me well up. The most surprising of which actually happened after the cast took their final bows — a small moment where actors Anne Allgood and Tracy Michelle Hughes took a second to themselves to share a hug.
Now, it’s not unusual for actors to hug after a performance, but what struck me was the fact that, for the past two and a half hours, Nottage’s play had put these two women at odds. Their friendship was irreparably torn to shreds as Nottage’s play highlighted the pain we inflict on each other as we scrape to get by in a capitalistic society that so often leaves its least fortunate members at each other’s throats battling for scraps.
It’s easy to get to the blackout at the end of “Sweat” and feel frustrated or angry, but that small hug, one not meant for me or any audience member, felt like the only appropriate response to making it through this play.
“Sweat” takes place in Reading, Pennsylvania, primarily in 2000, with a few scenes taking place in 2008. Nottage based the play on the real city of Reading, which, as reported by The New York Times in 2011, saw its poverty rate rise to 41.3%, earning it “the unwelcome distinction of having the largest share of its residents living in poverty” as local plant workers faced closings and layoffs. After conducting interviews with residents of Reading in 2011, Nottage set out to capture the essence of what those individuals were going through in her play.
As an audience, we look in on a local bar in town, warmly designed by scenic designer L.B. Morse, with mismatched stools and a working tap. There, Tracey (Allgood), Cynthia (Hughes) and their friend Jessie (Sara Waisanen) regularly grab a drink after a long day on the floor of their factory jobs. A rift starts to grow in the group after Cynthia is given a promotion to management, unheard of for someone working on the floor, and the company subsequently starts pressuring the floor workers to make concessions in their pay and benefits, leading to a strike and lockout. Caught in the middle is Cynthia, who was simply looking to better her own situation and wound up caught between her friends (and her own son Chris, who also works on the floor) and a bulldozing upper management intent on cutting costs and outsourcing labor.
The biggest credit to this cast, and director John Langs, who finally mounts this production two years after COVID-19 caused its 2020 cancellation, is their ability to capture the tension between these characters. In one moment, Jessie (in an endearingly funny performance by Waisanen) is having a nice conversation with her newly promoted friend, thinking she finally has an ally in management to get presumably simple things for her and her fellow floor workers like air conditioning. Seconds after accepting that it’s 16th on the list of management’s priorities, Waisanen’s face drops when she hears Cynthia coo about being in an office with air conditioning now. Cynthia doesn’t notice.
“Sweat” winds up being a story about not listening to each other, or perhaps more accurately about having so many disparate voices that there’s no united front. After all, the real decision-makers in this play, from the top factory bosses to the owner of the bar in which they sit, are offstage. Meanwhile, their workers sit pitted against each other, not listening for long enough to realize they’re being manipulated. Two separate, beautiful moments from Hughes’ Cynthia and her son Chris (Tré Scott) could almost make you scream with how close they are to getting the full picture.
One sees Cynthia start to question her promotion, having wanted it because no one had ever made it off the floor. This is a truly rare opportunity to move up. But now, faced with frustration from her friends and rumors flying that she only got promoted because she’s Black, she starts wondering if they gave her the job on purpose, just to lay the blame for the lockouts at her feet. “I locked out my son, Stan,” she says to the bartender, combining brutal line with devastating delivery. “My own son.” Still, she’s faced with friends who just don’t understand.
The divide is emphasized in another scene by costume designer Pete Rush who puts Cynthia and Chris in blue while Tracey, Tracey’s son Jason and Jessie are in red. The design echoes the typical color pallet of “West Side Story’s” Jets and Sharks. It’s a clever choice, especially as the scene features Scott’s Chris pleading with his friends to do exactly what the two factions needed to do in the classic musical: sit down and listen to each other. Underneath his pleas is the agonizing audience knowledge of his eventual misfortune. Early on in the play, flashes forward to 2008 show that the inability for these former friends to see each others’ perspective leads Chris’ path away from his aspirations and toward a stint in prison.
Because, here’s the thing: So often we can’t see beyond our own immediate needs. Credit is due to Allgood and Cap Peterson’s portrayals of Tracey and Jason, respectively. Their lines are littered with casual racism — toward Cynthia and Chris, toward Black parole officer Evan, toward Colombian American bar worker Oscar — and still you ache for them as their lives deteriorate around them.
The beauty of this production, and Nottage’s play, is even as these characters lash out, you can always see the desperation, panic and absolute terror at the possibility of having nothing behind every word. That fear could not be more clear and understandable, which makes their self-destructive actions in the play all the more distressing to watch.
No, a simple hug can’t mend the divides highlighted in Nottage’s gut-punch of a play. There are systemic issues here, fundamental elements of the way our world works that turns the other way and allows people to live lives where they can’t spare $5 or $10 for a family member in need. This play reminds you that poverty, and the threat of poverty, pulls friends and lives apart. Even though its 2015 world premiere feels like it took place in a different universe politically and socially, its desperate plea for us all to find a way to pull together remains painfully relevant.