“We, the people, must redeem, The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.” This excerpt from Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America be America Again” is read at the top of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” an extraordinary exploration of race, class and labor in America, now in a gripping new production at Silver Spring Stage. Nottage’s knotty story appears to ask, who can claim the idea of “We, the people” and what is the project of redemption they can undertake?
Police lights signal the start of the show, accompanying the reading of Langston Hughes’ poem. Radio headlines tell us it’s 2008, and the stock market has dropped. The police lights are replaced by the harsh light, and fifth-degree, of a parole officer (a very good Anthony Coley) interviewing two young men, revealed to be Jason (Peter Moses) and Chris (Michael king). Both are recently released from prison, for an unspecified crime.
The scene sets the tone for the seething rage and resentment that underscores the show. Tattooed and angry, Jason, who is white, hurls a racial epithet at his parole officer, who is black. The officer shuts down his rebellion. It’s a tense interplay that begins to ease when Jason is exchanged for Chris, another of the officer’s advisees. It’s revealed the two have recently met each other again, and share a history.
That history is revealed through the subsequent story, a series of vignette-like scenes, set in a small bar in Reading, Pennsylvania over the course of the year 2000. In contrast to the opener, we see a festive night, with two women dancing. It’s the birthday of one of the women, Tracey (Maura Suilebhan), and she’s celebrating with Cynthia (Kecia A. Campbell) and Jessie (Amanda Jones). Stan (Ron Ward), serves them behind the bar, the purveyor, but not the owner.
…an extraordinary exploration of race, class and labor in America, now in a gripping new production at Silver Spring Stage.
Through conversation, we learn that all the women work at a local steel tubing factory in manufacturing jobs and that Stan used to work there before a work-related injury. The script sketches personalities quickly through dialogue. Cynthia, pragmatic, is thinking about trying for a management role at the factory, which Tracey decries. “Management is for them, not us,” she says, the “us” being the workers on the floor. Talk of automation, and NAFTA hint at the beginning of the end for this group’s way of life. “Wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico,” warns Stan.
Nottage’s character interplay includes plenty of friction, with Tracey as the main antagonist. Maura Suilebhan turns in a stunning performance as Tracey, communicating the character’s banked anger through a permanent defensive posture, chin up and shoulders back. It’s clear she’s spoiling for a fight, a desire that gets satisfied when Cynthia, played with great sensitivity by Kecia A. Campbell, gets promoted over her to a management role at a time when tensions between the manufacturing floor and office are high.
Tracey also clashes with Oscar, a worker at the bar, in a strong performance by Andrés Felipe Roa. The tension between Oscar, a Reading-born native with Colombian heritage, and Tracey is one of the most striking throughlines of the show. A perfectly crafted scene in the first half finds them sharing space, unwillingly, outside the bar. Suspicious of Oscar, Tracey nevertheless reveals her fierce pride at being part of a lineage of workers; her father worked at the factory, as does her son, Jason, and her grandfather was a craftsman. “My grandfather was the real thing. Back when people worked with their hands, people respected you,” she declares.
That sense of generational disappointment is echoed by Brucie, Cynthia’s estranged husband, embodied with awful weariness by Neal Burks. Brucie is dealing with a year-long strike at the textile factory where he works, as his union tries to prevent concessions to the factory owners. He marvels at the stalemate, having hoped to live and retire the way his father did. “My pops didn’t have to go through this s**t. What did I do wrong?” he asks Stan.
Nottage explores labor as both an occupation, and an identity. “I’m a worker, that’s me,” says Tracey, a sentiment echoed by others. She balks at Cynthia’s move to management, which she partly ascribes to affirmative action, though she claims to not be racist. Class and race criss, cross and clash in many of the characters’ inherent racism, coming to a head in the workers’ hatred of Oscar, who crosses the picket lines to work at the factory.
Director Matt J. Bannister does a nice job placing Oscar in the shadows of a scene, emphasizing his social liminality. While patrons of the bar discuss their own disenfranchisement, he scrapes gum off the underside of a table, a perfect metaphor for unseen and unappreciated labor.
Glancing verbal blows and posturing escalate to real violence in a shocking scene. Nottage primes you to think you know what will happen, but you won’t. That upset in expectations is matched in a last-minute moment that swaps anger for profound empathy.
At the end of his poem, Hughes describes America as “The land that never has been yet.” That “yet” provides some clear-eyed hope, which also glimmers at the end of “Sweat.”
Running Time: About 3 hours, with one intermission.
Advisory: Swearing, racial slurs and one scene of violence.
“Sweat” runs through Nov. 23 at Silver Spring Stage. For tickets, or more information, click here.