I’m at work the other day putting on high-visibility coveralls and safety boots. And it occurs to me, I saw that on stage last night, middle-aged women matter-of-factly wearing Carhartt work trousers and boots for work without it being a joke or even worthy of comment. And I have never seen that on stage before.
When I went to see the Citadel’s production of Sweat, the Lynn Nottage drama directed by Valerie Planche, I had not realized that the main characters, the group of co-worker/ friends disrupted when one gets promoted, were going to be women (Marci T. House, Nicole St Martin, Lora Brovold). This confused me a bit, and then I felt a little silly, for assuming that I’d be seeing another story of men as blue-collar workers and family providers, a trope I’d accepted since childhood viewings of Archie Bunker and Fred Flintstone. Instead, the script showed three women as the group of friends who had been working “on the line” their whole careers, expecting they’d do so until retirement.
Two of them have young-adult sons also starting their working lives at the mill, played by Andrew Creightney and Chris W Cook. Their aspirations to work in the mill or to get away from it reminded me of conversations among people I knew when we were teenagers in a mill town. Chris Cook is so good at portraying dead-end characters I pull for and despair for and want to shake, characters whose naivete or lack of judgement or short-sighted well-intentioned impulses lead them into big trouble. As soon as I saw his character on stage this time (and in fact, before I recognized the actor), I was internally groaning, oh, NO, you DIDN’T. His friend Chris (Andrew Creightney) has a plan to start studying at the local community college after a summer of saving his mill-work wages, looking beyond the neighbourhood and the mill even before his mother gets promoted and sees a different future for herself. That it doesn’t work out as well as they dream is the Steinbeck-worthy gut punch. But this one is happening in times I remember and in places like ones I know. Oof. Voice-over headlines read out between scenes show us some of the bigger context, the economic and political happenings over the year 2000 that might be affecting lives in a place like Pittsburgh, and allow jumps forward in time to 2008 to show the outcomes of some of those news items and of the characters’ responses.
The script is subtle, with the outcomes not entirely predictable despite the foreshadowing, and offering some hope and humanity. Ashley Wright plays the manager of the bar where most of the action happens, Alen Dominguez his employee, and Anthony Santiago the ex-husband of Marci House’s character Cynthia. I appreciated the understated acknowledgements of how race and gender matter, particularly in the speech where Cynthia talks about how there is more at stake for her, applying for the supervisory position and getting it, because she is female and African-American. The vague offstage threat of the employers looking to replace everyone with immigrant workers for less money is made immediate and personal when the other characters (and the audience) realize that Oscar (Dominguez), who has been shuffling through the bar bussing tables and cleaning up, is an immigrant whose life would be improved by getting low-paying non-union factory work.
The one thing that I was a little dissatisfied with was that I wanted to find out more about what happened to Lora Brovold’s character Jessie, but maybe that is just because I appreciate the actor’s work.
Sweat is still making me think. It is playing at the Citadel until February 3rd.