Set in Reading, Penn., and shifting between scenes set in 2000 and in 2008, “Sweat” chronicles the strains placed on a group of blue-collar friends when their jobs at the local factory are threatened. Despite a long development process that began in 2011, the play, which opens March 26 at Broadway’s Studio 54, addresses issues of economic inequality and racial fracturing that now make it a timely portrait of the forgotten, desperate working class that surged to the voting booth to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election.
“The immediacy of it is almost freakish,” said MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes, who saw the show during Broadway previews. “I’m not sure how [Nottage] managed it. Not only is it great as drama, in that it’s incredibly well crafted with well-drawn characters, but it’s also one of the most sophisticated political texts I’ve encountered in a long while.”
Pulitzer winner Nottage (“Ruined”) began researching “Sweat” in 2011, and it made stops at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, and then at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage and at the Public Theater in 2016 before landing at Broadway’s Studio 54. The tale undoubtedly had contemporary relevance at OSF and at Arena, but by the time it got to the Public, where the show opened the week before the presidential election, “Sweat” played like it had been tailor-made for the nation’s post-election soul-searching.
“In a way, the play has only increased in meaning over time,” said director Kate Whoriskey, who also worked with Nottage on “Ruined.” “Trump really is the lightning rod for the question of racial tension and economic divide.”
Other theater artists have also mobilized to grapple with the sudden onset of the Age of Trump. In L.A., for instance, Jon Robin Baitz’s Trump-inspired play “Vicuna” bowed at the Kirk Douglas Theater in October, and “Building the Wall,” a chilling glimpse of life in America in 2019 by “Hacksaw Ridge” co-writer Robert Schenkkan (“All the Way”), just opened at the Fountain Theater. But given the more extensive production demands (including the higher costs) necessitated by Broadway, it’s rare for a production to land there with the kind of cultural immediacy that “Sweat” carries with it.
“I think people are looking for answers all over the country right now, on Broadway and not on Broadway,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who saw the show at Arena last year. “People went out to see ‘Hamilton’ and it gave them a sense of purpose and hopefulness and pride in the project of America. But I think people now are feeling dubious about the project of America, and it’s time for a no-historical-costumes, grown-up story that tries to help people find answers. ‘Sweat’ has its uncomfortable moments, but there are enough to go around that nobody leaves unscathed.”
Ifill and Hayes are among a number of prominent and politically engaged figures who have turned out to for “Sweat” over the last two years. Michael Moore, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook have also seen the show.
“Sweat” grew out of Nottage’s prescient identification of issues that, at the time, hadn’t yet pushed their way to the fore of public awareness. Soon after Reading topped the census’ poverty list in 2011, she began to make regular visits there in order to conduct interviews and research. The next year, she invited her “Ruined” collaborator Whoriskey to join her for the trips. (Development of the play was supported by a co-commission from the Arena and from OSF’s American Revolutions program, which has also yielded Tony winner “All the Way” and the upcoming Broadway play “Indecent.”)
“Honestly, I felt these issues were something that had real urgency and immediacy back when I sat down to write,” Nottage remembered. “I knew it was a conversation that needed to be had.”
After speaking to a wide array of Reading residents, Nottage found the inspiration for her fictional plot in talking to the city’s steel workers. A couple of years later, her work on “Sweat” informed her reactions as the 2016 election season came to a boil.
“I knew the issues of economic inequality and economic insecurity would be raised during the election,” she said. “But I was surprised by how efficiently Donald Trump was able to exploit people’s fears and insecurities. The thing that didn’t surprise me was the level of desperation, because I had seen it. I spoke to people in Reading who felt very afraid and very marginalized.”
“Better than any of the political writing I’ve seen on the topic, the play manages to deal directly with these twin theories about what happened in the election,” noted Hayes. “One theory is about economic anxiety, and the people who experienced downward mobility turning out at the voting booth. In the other, tribalism and bigotry and racism are the explanation. ‘Sweat’ shows the ways that these pre-existing impulses of bigotry can be turned up, or supercharged, by economic pressures.”
A new nonmusical without a Hollywood star is a risky proposition in the commercial theatrical arena, where plays focused on the working class have also become rare. But the critical praise earned by the show out of town and Off Broadway can help drive interest, and the producing team, led by Stuart Thompson and Louise L. Gund, have opted to scale down the size of the Studio 54 audience from nearly 1,000 seats to 659, both as a means of amping up intimacy and as an acknowledgment that the show seems likely to be more of an art-house draw on razzle-dazzle Broadway.
Among audiences at Studio 54, the production’s striking topical resonance has spurred impromptu conversations among its disparate theatergoers. “Some nights at the theater it feels almost like it feels to sit in jury duty, listening to people from all backgrounds talk about the different things they identify with,” Whoriskey said.
At a recent preview performance, Nottage found herself sitting in the balcony in the midst of a frank intermission conversation among strangers — and none of the participants knew she’d written the play.
“Prior to the election, I think people could observe the folks on the stage with a certain level of distance,” Nottage said. “But now they realize that what’s happening in that bar onstage has impacted their lives in very tangible ways. It’s like suddenly having to pay attention to the person who’s sitting next to you on the bus, because they’re holding your metro card.”