By Siena Giljum
BU News Service
Ringing in 2020 evokes imagery and nostalgia for the “Roaring” 1920s, with a twinge of anxiety about a financial crisis that would devastate the country: the Great Depression. As the women of “Sweat” ring in Tracey’s millennium birthday in 2000 to the soundtrack of Santana’s “Smooth,” the same anxious feeling creeps in under their formerly trending knee-high boots.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage follows the personal and working relationship between factory workers, Cynthia and Tracey, during two parallel timelines — one in 2000 and one in 2008. The latter is in the wake of what is often called the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In yet another era of economic and political turmoil, “Sweat” feels eerily relevant, complete with references to a tight presidential election.
Cynthia and Tracey are in their mid-40s in the 2000 storyline. They have put in over 20 years at a local manufacturing plant Olstead’s, where Tracey says “you gotta know somebody to get in.”
That notion is challenged by a job posting for the plant that Oscar, a busboy at the local bar, picks up at the Latino community center. In Spanish that Tracey calls “gibberish,” it represents the final, unmissable hint that the great American manufacturing framework is shuddering.
After Cynthia receives a big promotion that takes her “off the floor” and “upstairs” at the Reading, Penn. plant, the underlying tension bubbles to the surface. As much as she and longtime confidante and coworker, Tracey, would like to believe that they are the same, the two live worlds apart.
Tracey’s pride in her German heritage and assertions that her grandfather “built” the town of Reading play into her inextricable whiteness; assertions that Cynthia only received the promotion because of her race link her to other black women who undergo the same kind of unfounded distrust. Their experience is a reminder that even when two people are on the exact same plane in nearly every category – birthplace, social class, family structure and substance abuse struggles – race sends a splinter through bonds.
Huntington Theatre Company’s rendition of Nottage’s work gets up close and personal, offering some comfort in cheery newscast voices announcing “a perfect summer day,” juxtaposed alongside Jason’s white supremacist face tattoos in the 2008 storyline. The cigarettes Tracey can’t get enough of (nicotine-free cocoa shell versions for the stage), the same boring beer Stan always serves and even the unchanging wall posters in Howie’s Tap all create a sense of serious hardship masked by an outer layer of enjoyment and mirth.
There is a sense in “Sweat” that the grind of daily life might be escapable through lighthearted celebrations for birthdays and promotions and travel plans for vacation time. But reminders as simple as the bartender’s limp from an injury at his job at Olstead’s is enough to snap the characters and the audience back to blue-collar reality.
“Sweat” at the Huntington comes in the wake of never-ceasing financial and industrial turmoil, with presidential candidates always on the campaign trail promising to bring jobs back stateside.
“You could wake up tomorrow, and all your jobs are in Mexico,” Bartender Stan warns his patrons.
Line jobs like the ones at the fictitious Olstead’s disappear during the events of the play, and real-life Americans today are continually reckoning with the implications of an AI-operated manufacturing framework. Today’s reality is eerily foreshadowed by Chris, Cynthia’s son’s, prediction.
“Well, they got buttons now, boop, that can replace all of us. Boop. Boop.”
Nottage’s program note for the show is titled “Reading, PA, but It Could Be Anywhere,” emphasizing the sheer universality of the tensions in “Sweat,” including race and class relations, blows to American manufacturing and how substance abuse and financial struggles can fracture even the strongest families and individuals.
“Sweat” is a wonderfully rich microcosm of working class America. Reading, but it could be anywhere: 2000 or 2008 – but it could be any year.
“Sweat” is playing at the Huntington Theatre Company at 264 Huntington Ave. through March 1. Student tickets begin at $20 and can be purchased at huntingtontheatre.org.