Blue-collar Blues Go From Melancholy to Full Scale Rage in Sweat at the Alley

Derrick J. Brent II as Chris and David Rainey as the parole officer in Lynn Nottage's Sweat.
Derrick J. Brent II as Chris and David Rainey as the parole officer in Lynn Nottage's Sweat. Photo by Lynn Lane
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, fiercely playing at the Alley in collaboration with the Ensemble Theatre, playwright Lynn Nottage keeps America's melting pot on slow boil until the precise moment when it has to erupt. The baseball bat slammed on the counter by barkeep Stan to warn his fiery regulars to cool down becomes, like Chekhov's proverbial gun, the weapon of choice. It has to be swung. The effect is the shattering of the American dream.

We're in Reading, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cities of its size in the country. The steel factory is king, and all the characters have worked there since high school or before. Their parents have labored there, as have their parents. It's grueling mindless work, but it gives them a sense of purpose, accomplishment, the ability to pay the rent and have a somewhat decent life. It even supports their dreams – an education for their children, a cruise to Jamaica, a road trip to Florida. But what it doesn't provide is a way out.

Downsizing, NAFTA, corporate greed, empty promises by politicians, the allure of drugs, racial tensions about to fray, cheap labor elsewhere, cheap labor here – all begin to suffocate these forgotten Americans. Over eight years starting in 2000, the play dramatizes the fault lines underneath society's inexorable march to the precipice. Everyone's at the edge. Who goes over first?

What keeps everyone going is Stan's bar, a worn out much-used watering hole where the factory workers gather to gripe, gossip, celebrate birthdays, and, eventually, pick at each other's scabs until they draw blood. It's a tight community at first, a place of refuge and comfort after the daily grind.

Stan (Chris Hutchison) oversees the dive, dispensing trite pearls of wisdom. He, too, worked at the factory until an accident mangled his leg. Tracey (Elizabeth Bunch), Jessie (Melissa Pritchett), and Cynthia (Michelle Elaine) are the female triumvirate. Working on the factory floor, they are just as tough as the men. Ask them, if you dare. They can drink anyone under the table, if they're not there already.

Jason, Tracey's son (Dylan Godwin), and Chris, Cynthia's son (Derrick J. Brent II) are best buds who also work at the factory. Chris has plans to move on...someday; Jason wants just enough money to buy a motorcycle and after that is content to stay where he is. Oscar (Luis Quintero) is the barback, fussing in the background, invisible to the regulars. He won't stay in the shadows for long. Brucie (Shawn Hamilton), Cynthia's estranged husband, has found his escape in drugs and is an irritating reminder to all how far one can fall from a very low perch.

Parole officer Evan (David Rainey) begins the play in the present, 2008, where he separately interviews Jason and Chris on their release from prison. Jason is tagged with white supremacist tattoos; while Chris holds strong to a Bible. What happened to put them in jail? For now, Nottage subtly leaves this an open question. Like the master dramatist she is, she will tease us throughout. Before the scene shifts on the turntable, lost Jason plaintively pleads, “What's going on?” He truly doesn't know.

Nottage keeps her drama on a smooth revolve, also, shifting perspectives as everyone has their say. There are a few too many romantic reveries that slow the momentum, but her premise is so taut and sure that these are minor irritations in the larger picture she so deftly paints with acid. Racial tensions rear up when Cynthia gets a promotion to the front office. Once inseparable friends, the advancement of black Cynthia now inevitably gnaws at white Tracey. When the factory sells off half its inventory, the workers turn on Cynthia as a Judas. Strike with us, they demand. But it's all too late. The factory shuts them out, hires scabs to replace them, and Oscar, an American of Colombian descent, gets his dream job on the factory floor. Once overjoyed and proud of her achievement, Cynthia, after the factory's final restructuring, is also out of a job. The pot is at full boil, and the ending and denouement is a scorcher.

The production (co-directed with jabs and blows by Rob Melrose, the Alley's artistic director, and Eileen Morris, Ensemble's artistic director) is finely crafted by Michael Locher's seedy, below-street-level rust-belt bar, Kevin Rigdon's fluorescent accents, and Erica Griese's thriftstore apt costumes. The actors are exceptional, tinging every furious outburst or failed hope with quicksilver desperation. Standout performances from Shawn Hamilton's sad debauched Brucie and Dylan Godwin's terrifyingly toxic Jason lead the way to hell on earth.

This prescient play is long, running approximately two hours and forty minutes with intermission, and is irredeemably gloomy as the initial camaraderie morphs into a stifling No Exit. This is kitchen-sink drama with a wrenching gut punch. Gritty and real, Sweat takes no prisoners. You'll never look at a maintenance man, cleaning lady, or factory drudge in quite the same way. This unflinching dissection of de-industrialized America and the human destruction that ensues is a chilling picture of what has happened. You might well tremble, Dear God, what else is on the horizon?

Sweat continues through October 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. All patrons must show a negative Covid-19 test or proof of vaccination prior to entry. Masks required. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $30 - $61.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover