|The Cast of ACT's Sweat|
For San Franciscans still scratching their heads and wondering how in the world Donald Trump was able to win the last election (and why he seems still to be so popular in so many places other than San Francisco), all they need to do is spend an evening at the American Conservatory Theatre between now and October 21. After witnessing the stories so grippingly, honestly, and heartbreakingly relayed in Lynn Nottage’s new play, Sweat, (the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), who could not exit the theatre without saying, “Now I know why”?
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party evidently did not do in 2011 (or any time afterwards) what the playwright did and go to the Rust Belt states to interview people whose lives were being upended by the shuttering of factories that had served their communities for generations. What she learned in those conversations led her to pen a script that tells all one needs to hear in order to understand the depth of pain, disillusion, hopelessness, and anger that many of the people in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan were feeling by November 2016 – many heretofore loyal Democrats.
|Sarah Nina Hayon, Lise Bruneau & Tonye Patano|
After an opening scene between a brash, barking parole officer, Evan, (Adrian Roberts, whose compassion and caring is deep but currently hidden by his frustration) and two of his parolees, the play reverts eight years in time to early 2000 in a local bar of Reading, Pennsylvania. There, three quite drunk but happy women are celebrating a birthday – friends since childhood who have been working together at the local Olmsted Steel Mill for over twenty years. Along with the bartender, Stan, they complain about the original Olmsted’s grandson who now runs the plant “stuffing his pockets instead of improving the floor” and about the plant’s managers who “don’t understand the human cost of making their shitty product.”
|Kadeem Ali Harris & David Darrow|
In subsequent scenes, we hear both from the women and two of their sons who also work at the steel mill (the same two from the opening scene) that though they have plenty of worker complaints (bad backs and foot blisters from ten hours a day standing, hands frozen by end of day, etc.), working at the mill is in something that gives each of them much pride – especially being on the floor itself. When Tracey’s son, Jason (David Darrow), hears that his best buddy, Chris (Cynthia’s son played by Kadeem Ali Harris) is planning on going to Auburn in the fall, he tries to persuade him instead to stay and work for the promised pension and then to retire so they can jointly own a Dunkin’ Donuts. After all, what better dream could they ever have as two pals for life? But Chris somehow sees writing on the wall – perhaps because his Dad, Brucie (Chiké Johnson), has been locked out of a local textile mile for 93 weeks. He explains adamantly to Jason, “No matter how much you work, you’ll never have enough” to feel secure and safe, given the guys who own and run the plant.
Even before several months later when the management decides in the dark of night to send half of the steel plant’s machines to Tijuana, the mounting frustration of the workers is becoming evident. The gruff but jovial bartender Stan (Rod Gnapp) -- who looks after his drinking and drunk patrons like a guardian angel – has a bad limp from an accident at the plant that came from faulty equipment. Even after twenty-eight years of his service, no one in management cared to come see him in the hospital, and he knows exactly how much those on top care about those on the bottom.
It is he who first warns, “They are always looking for reasons to let us go ... same conversation for twenty years.” He is also the one who rails against NAFTA, predicting to his still-disbelieving patrons, “They can ship your jobs to Mexico.” When the reality of a 60% pay cut with fewer benefits and more hours hits in mid July along with a promised lockout for anyone not accepting the so-called offer, no one can argue with one expressed sentiment, “You are dealing with vipers.”
|Tonye Patano & Lise Bruneau|
The real power of the stories we see unfolding is understanding first-hand the costs beyond cut salaries and lost jobs of what is happening to the lives of people we have gotten to know. The Tweeted and rally-ranted themes of Trump begin to pop up over and again. We watch prejudices erupt against a Colombian American who even though born in this country, is accused of being here on his green card to take away the jobs of real Americans. We watch long-time friends who have been like family – friends both white and black – blast with hateful racial accusations when one who is white (Tracey played by Lise Bruneau) is convinced she is overlooked for a promotion because her best friend is black (Cynthia, Tonye Patano). Individuals bemoan what is happening to their community with all these newcomers (“Olmsted is not for you”), and they long for the old days “when you got dressed up to go shopping” and when “if you worked with your hands, people respected you.” Divisions begin to appear among both friends and family members, with dire consequences spiraling out of control due to emotions gone ballistic.
All along the way as we watch, we begin to have a difficult time pointing to who at the core is at fault for how they feel, how they react, or for the damages to life and limb that occur. And we in our haven of San Francisco begin to understand what unfortunately an opportunist like Trump understood: The hurt and subsequent need to blame someone for the changes in their lives was in 2016 very deeply felt by a lot of ordinary, hard-working, formerly fun-loving people. They were just waiting for someone like him to tell them exactly where to put all the blame and how to work to “make America great again.”
Along with the astoundingly astute direction of Loretta Greco who clearly brings passionate caring for the working class of America into her work, the cast assembled for this monumental American Conservatory Theatre production is to a person stellar. These are people who stop to have a drink or two (or ten) at their favorite watering hole and who have built a family among each other and the bartender. Their emotions are often raw but always real. Their views are sometimes scarred by rumor, hurt, or downright prejudice but are also expressed by this cast in ways we too feel the root and want to know better the cause. While we may not like all we see, we cannot help but care for each of the individuals we meet. The cast does a magnificent job presenting a wide range of folks who by the end are all damaged severely by the economic changes around them, who often do not react in ways noble, but who are also people we do not leave making negative judgments against or believing they are all that different in morals from our own, California selves.
|Sara Nina Hayon|
The local bar designed by Andrew Boyce is so inviting with its many details that as an audience, we feel we too should be served a drink from one of the scores of inviting bottles rising up the mirrored, back wall. Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design that includes strings of lights that twinkle among the bottles also allures us to be a part of a scene that feels somehow familiar. The sound design of Jake Rodriguez makes us feel at home with the tunes of the times prodding us to tap our toes while the bar’s patrons take to the floor to dance. Ulises Alcala’s costumes play a big part in helping us understand some of the life-changing transformations (both the good ones and the devastating ones) that occur among the individuals. Hana S. Kim’s projections give us some feel for the surrounding Reading community, with their having an Everytown, U.S.A. quality to what we see.
Stories are how we often best learn new truths about the world around us. Lynn Nottage clearly understands the power of these narratives to deliver messages and to raise questions that we somehow have missed while watching CNN, reading Facebook, or listening to NPR. The current collage of stories on the stage of the American Conservatory Theatre do not lead to many definitive answers of who is right or wrong in the great, current divide of our country. However, these stories do provide much rich and needed fodder for more conversations in the days and weeks ahead after existing the theatre. And in leaving, one cannot help but believe we have just seen a sure-fire guarantee to be an American classic on stages for many decades to come.
Rating: 5 E “MUST-SEE”
Sweat continues through October 21, 2018 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.
Photos by Kevin Beane