Steelworkers’ stories of disappearing jobs come to life onstage in ‘Sweat’

February 10, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
“Sweat,” a new play by Lynn Nottage, is a humorous and harrowing look at the decline of the Rust Belt in modern America. Inspired by stories from Reading, Pennsylvania -- once home to one of the richest corporations in the world and now one of the poorest cities in the nation -- “Sweat” examines the lives of steel workers left behind by changing times. Jeffrey Brown reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally: A new play tells the story of an industrial Pennsylvania city in decline and the impact on a group of friends.

Jeffrey Brown talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage.

JEFFREY BROWN: The year is 2000, the setting, a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, as friends, co-workers at a steel plant, celebrate a birthday. But as time passes, there is little celebrating, rather, a sense of loss, of jobs, friendships, loved ones, a way of life.

ACTRESS: The union don’t got a lot to say about it. Those machines are gone. They aren’t coming back. But if we do this right, we can protect the rest of your jobs.

LYNN NOTTAGE, Playwright, “Sweat”: I decided that I wanted to go about finding sort of the source of this trauma and figuring out how we as Americans had come to that point where we could be living so close to poverty without recognizing it on a daily basis.

ACTOR: You need to shut up and drink your beer. That’s exactly why I didn’t say anything, man.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is humor in Lynn Nottage’s new play “Sweat,” but at its heart, it’s a harrowing look at workers who have been impacted by large forces in American life.

ACTOR: Three generations of loyalty to the same company. I never imagined working anywhere else. I get injured, I’m in the hospital for nearly two months, can’t walk, can’t feel my toes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The characters live amid the decline of the Rust Belt, the consequences of NAFTA and new technology, the weakening of unions.

LYNN NOTTAGE: The bar is the place where the truth happens most often, because you have the lubricant that loosens people’s tongues.

JEFFREY BROWN: The bar in the play itself is based on a real one in Reading, a city once a symbol of industrial power, home to the Reading Railroad Company, so famous from “Monopoly,” and in its day, one of the richest corporations in the world.

By 2011, though, Reading was cited as the poorest city in the nation, with more than 41 percent of its citizens living below the poverty line. The statistics drew Nottage, and her research began.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I got in a car with someone who I was working with, and we drove the 2.5 hours to Reading from New York City and just began to explore it.

I always begin by saying that I’m not a reporter and I’m not there to fix anything. I’m just there to listen and to absorb. And it may result in something and it may result in nothing at all. But I find that, for a lot of people, there’s this palliative effect of just sitting down and talking, and having someone who’s nodding and listening and appreciative of their stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did some of these interviews, or whatever you want to call them, gathering of stories, end up in the play?

LYNN NOTTAGE: Absolutely. After about a year-and-a-half, I encountered a group of steelworkers who had been locked out of their factory for 92 weeks. This was a group of sort of burly, sturdy people who normally, given where I live and given what I do, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit down with.

But we’re sitting in a circle, and they began to tell their stories. And the majority of them had been working in the steel factory for between 25 to 30 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many stories later, the result is “Sweat,” a co-commission of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where the play is now running.

Here, Tracey, a central character, looks back to what she sees as the good old days.

ACTRESS: My family’s been here since the ’20s. They built the house that I live in. They built this town. My grandfather was German. He could build anything, cabinets, fine furniture, anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nostalgia comes as security is slipping away, and machines and jobs literally disappear overnight.

Tracey’s friend, Cynthia, fulfills her dream of a management position after 26 years on the factory floor, only to find herself cut off by co-workers as layoffs begin.

ACTOR: Are they trying to squeeze us out?

KIMBERLY SCOTT, “Cynthia”: You saw how easy it was for them to sneak in and break down those machines while all of us were at home sleeping. I guarantee you they’re in Mexico.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Kimberly Scott, who plays Cynthia, the themes hit home.

KIMBERLY SCOTT: I was raised in a union household.


KIMBERLY SCOTT: Yes. One of the first things I learned to read was the United Transportation Union newsletter. My dad worked on the railroad for over 30 years. When I went to graduate school, I remember a day when I was going to school and I had to cross the union picket line to get into class.

And it was traumatic. I remember calling my mom, crying, what do I do, what do I do? And she said, baby, you’re there to get an education. You do what you have to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: As changes come, no one is spared, not Chris, Cynthia’s son, or his best friend, Jason, who also work at the plant, not Stan the bartender, or his young helper Oscar from a Latino family, who decides to cross a picket line to improve his lot, with tragic consequences.

ACTOR: They offer me $3 more per hour than I make here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lynn Nottage says, after all the research, she started her writing at the end of the story, with these four men.

LYNN NOTTAGE: The image that I had was the last image of the play, in which you have four men for who come from very different backgrounds standing on the stage in a moment of extreme crisis and trying to find the vocabulary to communicate across the divide. That’s what I began with, and I thought, how do I get there?

JEFFREY BROWN: Nottage is best known for her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Ruined,” which examined another crisis, violence against women in an African civil war.

Where does the compulsion come from for you to look at things like this?

LYNN NOTTAGE: It comes from curiosity. It’s one of the things that I always told my students, is replace judgment with curiosity.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, because people usually come in with judgments?

LYNN NOTTAGE: People enter with judgment. And I think that judgment becomes a wall.

And rather than being passive and sitting back and allowing that curiosity to sort of die, I reach out and ask the question. And so I think that’s why I travel. And that’s why I go in search of characters.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Sweat,” drama that takes on social and economic issues now part of the presidential campaign, is in Washington through February, and is then expected to move to New York.

From Arena Stage, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.