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Sweat
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 11, 2021

Poster Image: The Black Rep

The Black Rep has returned to live performance with the thought-provoking, Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by celebrated playwright Lynn Nottage.  It’s a dynamic return for a theatre company that has been known for its excellence. The Black Rep maintains that reputation with a well-cast, impeccably paced production that focuses on issues of economic, class and racial tensions that were relevant in the time period in which the play is set, and that still resonate today. 

The story is told in flashback, starting out in 2008 as a parole officer, Evan (Don McClendon) is taking turns to interview two young men who have just been released after serving several years in prison. Jason (Franklin Killian) and Chris (Brian McKinley) both allude to something “bad” that they did that led to their conviction, but they are vague. It’s also clear that the two used to be close friends, but they are awkward now about having accidentally run into one another in town. The setting then shifts to eight years earlier, in early 2000, at a bar in the Reading, Pennsylvania area, frequented by workers from a local factory. Three friends and factory co-workers, Cynthia (Velma Austin), Tracey (Amy Loui), and Jessie (Kelly Howe), celebrate Tracey’s birthday and banter with the bartender, Stan (Blake Anthony Edwards), and in a series of subsequent scenes we get to know the characters and their situations, including the younger Jason and Chris, who also work  at the factory.  Gradually and deliberately, a story emerges from these vignettes, as the factory management looks for ways to cut costs, the workers feel the stress of wondering about job security, and Cynthia and Tracey both apply for the same management position at the factory.

We see the expected worker-management suspicion, as well as racial tensions come to the surface threatening the friendships among the characters. Tracey and Jessie, as well as Tracey’s son Jason, are white, along with Stan, who tries to be the mediator and peacemaker in the various situations. Cynthia and her  estranged husband Brucie (A.C. Smith), along with their son Chris, are Black, and are starting to see some resentment from their longtime friends, and especially Tracey. There’s also Oscar (Gregory Almanza), the Colombian-American bar assistant who shows Tracey a Spanish-language job poster from the factory looking to hire workers at a lower rate, which had been posted at the Latin Community Center and leads to further tensions among the characters, as hostility rises against Oscar, who has  been seen as an outsider even though he was born and raised in the area, as well. We also see some of the effects of the management’s treatment of its workers, as well as that of other factories with similar issues, on its workers, as both Brucie and Jessie deal with addiction in their own ways, and others indulge in dreams of “getting out” while some try to hold onto past family traditions and the way things had been for many years. In the midst of this, we see the foreshadowing and increasing buildup to the incident that Jason and Chris allude to in the introductory scenes–and when the moment arrives, it’s shocking in both its brutality and its sheer sense of realism. 

The play is well-constructed, as is expected for playwright Nottage, whose thoughtful, thought-provoking plays are duly celebrated. There’s also a good use of period newscasts and topical references to help set the events in their time as well as suggest a climate of tension across the country that’s not only being felt in this one town. The staging is dynamic and well-paced by director Ron Himes, and the atmosphere is well-maintained with a detailed, realistic set by Tim Jones, evocative lighting by John D. Alexander, clear sound by Kareem Deanes, and excellent costume design by Hali Liles. This setting seems like a real bar that anyone could just walk into and order a drink, and these characters and situations are immediate and believable.

The credibility of the characters is due to the combination of the strong script and the superb performances of the well-chosen cast at the Black Rep. As central figures Cynthia and Tracey, both Austin and Loui convey the complexity of their characters especially well, with a strong sense of history between the characters, and Loui especially manages to keep Tracey interesting even as her character becomes more difficult to like. There’s also a strong, anchoring performance from Edwards as the affable, world-weary bartender Stan. Killian and McKinley are also outstanding playing Jason and Chris as both their younger, more idealistic characters and the characters they become later. Almanza is effective as the determined Oscar, as well, as are Smith as the needy Brucie, Howe as the occasionally snarky Jessie, and McClendon in a small but memorable role as parole officer Evan. It’s a strong cast all around, with excellent ensemble chemistry that helps to drive the drama and relatability of the play. 

Sweat is a play that succeeds on many levels, as is fitting for a Pulitzer Prize winner. At the Black Rep, the company has staged a profoundly provocative show that is sure to make audiences think, which is important in a world in which issues such as these are increasingly timely. It’s a first-rate, remarkable production. 

The Black Rep is presenting SWEAT at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 26, 2021

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