When Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Sweat” first opened on Broadway in 2017, New York Times critic Ben Brantley, reflecting on the play’s blue-collar, Reading, PA roots, observed “it is foolish to underestimate the anger in places like these.” That is fundamentally what “Sweat” is about: anger, disillusionment, and, ultimately, the complete loss of hope when you live in a place that the world just seems to overlook.
Keegan’s production represents that deeply provocative nexus where the sheer talent of the actors meets a richly done theatrical experience resulting in an explosive piece of performance art.
The characters in “Sweat” all either work at or have a connection to Olstead’s, a steel tubing factory in southern Pennsylvania. The life of the town and its inhabitants very much revolves around this factory. It is their livelihood, their identity, and, in some cases, all they know. So, when the economic upheaval of 2000 along with the growing impact of NAFTA threaten to change the way the factory “has always been,” emotional, psychological, and even physical storms start brewing.
Nottage offers as real a look at blue-collar America as any play in recent times. She in fact spent two years traveling to Reading in order to understand what life was truly like in a place, which, at the time, had been listed among the poorest cities in America. Her firsthand research certainly paid off. In Keegan’s capable hands, “Sweat” gets a captivating new life here in the DC area.
The story largely centers around three friends who’ve spent twenty plus years at Olstead’s. When the position of warehouse manager opens up, that friendship is put to the test as both Tracey (Susan Marie Rhea) and Cynthia (Lolita Marie) throw their hats into the ring. One unintended consequence of these two women being professionally pitted against each other is the revelation of otherwise buried prejudices and racist proclivities—Cynthia is Black, Tracey is White. Meanwhile, their sons, Jason (Bowen Fox) and Chris (Jamil Joseph), also close friends, are navigating their young lives with the prospect (or sentence, depending on your interpretation) of working at Olstead’s looming in their future. There are other storylines intertwined. For instance, Cynthia and her estranged husband Brucie (DeJeanette Horne), an addict who also works at the factory, must grapple with where their relationship stands. The third member of the “bestie” trio, Jessie (Santina Maiolatesi), struggles with alcohol addiction. There’s Oscar (Andrés F. Roa), the Latino barback, his seeming invisibility also underscores the racial tensions bubbling beneath the surface. Then there is Stan (Jon Townson), a former factory employee suffering from a work-related injury that prompted him into a career in bartending.
The play is set mainly in 2000 and takes place almost exclusively in the local bar. This bar is as much home to these characters as the factory. Set designer Matthew J. Keenan does an incredible job in tandem with lighting designer Alberto Segarra of creating that “lived-in,” townie tavern feel as the set itself becomes a veritable character in this production. Another principal character is the political climate. Prior to 9/11, we are in the “heyday” of George W. Bush’s presidency and we see clips to this effect. Politics play out at their most basic level as we witness how decisions made in D.C. dramatically (and sometimes tragically) impact the lives of blue-collar workers on the factory floor.
While the bulk of the action takes place in 2000, the play is bookended by scenes from 2008. In the very first scene (2008), we learn that both Jason and Chris have just been released from prison per a meeting with their parole officer (Deimoni Brewington), thus the underlying mystery begins—why were they in jail all this time?
The Keegan Theatre isn’t trying to reinvent Nottage’s now iconic play, they are simply trying to remain true to what is at its core. They succeed in doing just that by giving audiences a gritty, honest, no-holds-barred portrayal of lives caught in a current from which they cannot escape, even though they’re swimming like hell to try and get to the shore. Keegan’s production represents that deeply provocative nexus where the sheer talent of the actors meets a richly done theatrical experience resulting in an explosive piece of performance art.
For their part, some of the actors seem to have taken a cue from Nottage inasmuch as they wholly come to embody the mannerisms and spirit of the factory workers they portray. At the center of this world-coming-undone moment is Cynthia. Lolita Marie’s challenge here is to give us a woman who at once cares about the welfare of her friends but at the same time, instinctively realizes she must look out for herself. Her new position at the factory is indeed polarizing to say the least. Lolita Marie pulls it off and then some. Her internal tug-of-war is riveting to watch, and her eventual isolation so tragic to behold.
Susan Marie Rhea also gives the audience a healthy dose of tragic. Her metamorphosis from the loud, garrulous life of the party into a bitter, angry, and eventually drug-addled woman is a truly convincing one. Much of the blue-collar mindset of the play hinges around Rhea’s performance, and she consequently gives this mindset a life and dimensionality of its own. As Cynthia’s son Chris, a young man with aspirations larger than can be fed by a factory life, Jamil Joseph puts his heart out there for all to read. It is an earnest and soulful performance.
As an ensemble, this cast just works. It becomes all too easy to read them as friends (and sometimes enemies) who’ve lived and worked together for years. The only criticism here would be that there are moments I just wish they’d pull back a little and let the power come from the words themselves versus the decibel level.
Angelisa Gillyard’s direction is a study in how naturalism can be done while still not losing the theatricality of the piece. In other words, we are in that bar looking in on these people’s lives, respecting the nuances of those lives. Yet, we also appreciate the wonderfully dramatic moments that can only be found in live theatre. Augmented by set design, lighting, Ian Vespermann’s sound design, and Johnna Presby’s well-thought-out costume choices, Gillyard’s vision for Nottage’s award-winning script results in a socially conscious and compelling night of theatre.
Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Mature themes and language.
“Sweat”‘ runs through September. 16, 2023 at the Keegan Theatre, 742 Church St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20036. For more information and tickets, go online. Masks are optional but encouraged for all visitors.