The Haunting Layers of Responsibility in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat
Do you remember that last time you were so engrossed in an experience that you forgot everything else—what was happening outside the door of that experience?
That’s what happened for me as an audience member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2015 world premiere production of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat.
Part of the OSF’s ten-year American Revolutions cycle depicting defining moments in U.S. history, culture, and social life, Sweat captures the lives of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, toggling between events in 2000 and 2008—a period during which two young men, Chris and Jason, have served eight years in prison for a shocking crime that isn’t revealed until near the play’s end.
How could it have happened to such decent young men?
“There was something about these people. They came from generations of workers, they had lived under the protection of a strong union, yet their lives changed radically the moment they found themselves shut out of the plant.” Production director, Kate Whoriskey, describes the core existential situation and emerging predicament in her playbill director’s notes.
The action takes place largely in a bar, operated by a sage manager, Stan. Stan’s bar, and wisdom, provide a refuge from the experience of helplessness and hopelessness that the manipulative greed of the factory owners and higher management enact on the dedicated (and dependent) workers.
When all hell breaks loose and tragedy happens, it’s a volcanic release of frustration and anxiety: uncertainty about job security, and disrespect by owners and managers towards the people who have anchored their lives in their jobs. Tracey and Cynthia, the mothers of the two young men as well as co-workers and best of friends, each define themselves—speaking for a whole cohort—as “a worker.”
Layers of Responsibility
When economic stability and identity are threatened, two pillars of “human decency” (a phrase Stan uses), relationships unravel, personal confidence and efficacy are undermined, and a long-standing modus vivendi of symbiotic worker-owner/management benefits crumbles.
Like a skilled canvas artist, Nottage adroitly adds layer upon layer of responsibility to the crime. Who triggered whom?
President George W. Bush, Jr.’s wealthy-focused policies, NAFTA, Wall Street and bank practices gone off the rails…the factory owners maneuvering for more and more reduced wages and benefits for workers…angry long-term white and African-American workers breathing venomous feelings towards incoming Latino workers. They all set off the actions of the two young men—one inherently thoughtful and reasoned, the other hot-headed and impulsive.
As a witness to this damaging set of political, social, cultural, personal, and interpersonal “dominoes,” I was left with a central question: Who bears responsibility for this tragic situation and criminal actions?
Nottage withholds simple, linear answers. Instead, she crafts a world—Austenesque in its specificity and particularity—that’s riddled with human frailty, sin, and dysfunction . . . as well as human goodness, decency, and hope.
The two young men, Chris and Jason, represent all of us. More sinned against than sinning, they do harm in the blink of a heated moment and pay eight years of their lives in restitution—a payment that every responsible party, from Bush to Wall Street moguls, to factory owners-managers, to embittered 20-year workers, should have shared.
We are all, Nottage suggests, more sinned against than sinning. And, our redemption lies in taking responsibility for one another. That’s how it oughta be.