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Humanity Shines in ‘Sweat’

A timely insight into today’s economic woes

Darleen Ortega

Cynthia (Cycerli Ash) struggles with the loss of good paying factory jobs and the effects of company management decisions in ‘Sweat,’ a Pulitzer-Prize winning play by African-American playwright Lynn Nottage, now playing through Feb. 2 at Imago Theater, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave. PHOTO BY DAVID KINDER/COURTESY IMAGO THEATER

Portland folks have the opportunity to see Profile Theater's first-rate production of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Sweat" through Feb. 2 at Imago Theater. The play's insights could not be more timely, or more resonant.

To prepare to write the play, Lynn Nottage spent many months listening to the people of Reading, Penn., a formerly thriving industrial city which, by 2011, had been identified as one of the poorest cities in America. She was drawn there because the city, with its diverse population, is a prime example of the decline of American industry. The play first opened in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a year before Trump's election--and by the time it opened on Broadway in 2017, the Trump election had happened, and it seemed like Nottage, an African American, had noticed things that everyone else had missed.

And yet it still appears that people may be missing what Nottage noticed. The narrative about Trump's election was (and, to some degree, continues to be) that "working class" people had been left behind and lashed out, seeing Trump as the answer to their economic woes. But "working class" is generally taken to mean white people; the effects of the economy on black, indigenous, and people of color does not evoke the same collective curiosity and attention, limited though that collective curiosity and attention may be.

Photo by David Kinder/Courtesy Imago Theater

Victor Mack (left) and La'Tevin Alexander star in ‘Sweat,’ a Pulitzer-Prize winning play that gives insight to the struggles of workers who fall into despair when they lose their jobs in the face of industrial decline.

But Nottage listened well--and this production invites us to listen well too. The play, which jumps back and forth in time between 2000 and 2008, tells the story of a group of steelworker friends who regularly gather in a bar run by Stan (Duffy Epstein), whose own career as a steelworker was cut short by a disabling accident. Tracey (Linda Hayden), Jessie (Alissa Jessup), and Cynthia (Cycerli Ash) all have been at the work long enough by 2000 that they are feeling it in their middle-aged bodies; Jason (Jim Vadala) and Chris (La'Tevin Alexander), the sons of Tracey and Cynthia respectively, are just starting out, and factory work seems the most obvious and really only option for a comfortable life.

By 2008 (when the play's opening scenes are set), it's clear that things have unraveled, and Jason and Chris have been released from prison. Most of the action takes place eight years earlier, as the characters experience the unraveling of the livelihood they had all counted on and we come to learn about a final violent conflict that changed all their lives.

As envisioned by Nottage, expertly realized by director Christopher Acebo, and beautifully played by this excellent cast, the decline of these characters feels both emblematic and very specific. All the characters have union jobs, yet the white characters, particularly Tracey and Jason, speak from a sense of entitlement that the black characters don't quite share; Tracey and Jason carry a sense of legacy, and speak of the generations that their family members toiled in this industry as though it creates a sort of compact. A good union wage and benefits is simply their due, what they are owed for decades of work and sacrifice.

The black characters (Cynthia and Chris) are union members too, but they speak as later entrants to the club; it doesn’t occur to their white friends to wonder why they lack the same legacy of generations of union toil. Cynthia and Chris are still aspiring, looking for ways to climb, even exploring other options. It is Cynthia who first decides to apply for an open management job; Tracey only considers it when Cynthia encourages her to apply.

Once Cynthia is awarded the job, their friendship begins to fracture. Tracey resents her, and she and Jessie quickly blame Cynthia for failing to prevent increasingly harsh measures imposed by management. Cynthia begins to wonder if she was chosen for the management job so that she could absorb just this sort of blame, even while the agency to impose these decisions actually resides with company leaders who don't engage with line workers at all. And none of them notice that Oscar (Chris Ramirez), the American-born son of Colombian parents who cleans up after them at the bar, can't break into the union no matter how hard he tries.

As the world of the union workers begins to crumble, we see how easily they can be pitted against each other. Their anger and powerlessness quickly becomes anger at one another; with no agency and no access to the real decision makers, they blame each other for betrayals that are varying degrees of real and imagined. Yet their humanity shines through even in their worst moments; they are good people struggling against extreme pressure. Their anger and fear is understandable and, even when their responses to one another are far from heroic.

Under Acebo's direction, this production puts us in proximity to folks for whom options are far more limited than most of us sitting in theater seats have imagined; the characters go from being able to save for a very nice vacation to working multiple menial jobs in order to pay the rent in a slum or falling into addiction or homelessness. The uniformly excellent cast (which also includes Victor Mack as Cynthia's husband and Chris's father, Brucie, who lost his union job more than a year before the other characters and is a living prophecy of what lies ahead for all) portrays these characters with complexity and humanity, and conveys a sense of how quickly and cataclysmically their worlds are shifting--showing up to work to find that the machines have been sold; lockouts that last for endless months; contract offers involving paycuts as high as 60 percent; the pressures that lead a person to cross a union picket line.

In the end, the characters--like so many Americans in the face of industrial decline--turn on each other because that is the only direction they can find to focus their anger. They have, to varying degrees, believed in the American dream of prosperity, and when that dream crumbles, they blame who they have been primed to blame: whoever is beneath them in the hierarchy. The actions of those who really decide what happens are protected from scrutiny.

Profile Theater's production of "Sweat" plays through Feb. 2 at Imago Theater, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at


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