"You've got to see Sweat," urged a friend who had just attended the play during its premiere run in early 2016 at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage. "It's why Donald Trump is going to be president."
I finally got a chance to follow his advice at the Public Theater in New York in December, after an election in which white working-class votes propelled the billionaire reality TV star into the Oval Office. When it comes to Broadway's Studio 54 in March, still more theatergoers will be able to check out my friend's bold claim for themselves.
The play is a personal and political drama that searingly portrays how mechanization and globalization upend blue-collar Americans' lives. Written by the Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, Sweat is set in a fading central Pennsylvania manufacturing town in 2000 and 2008. It opens with two young men, Chris and Jason, meeting with their parole officer. They have evidently been convicted of the same crime.
The arc of the play is the story of how they got there. The main characters are three middle-aged women—Jason's mother Tracey, Chris' mother Cynthia, and their friend Jessie—who have proudly worked their whole lives on the line at a local factory. In 2000, they are regulars at the neighborhood bar run by Stan. A former factory worker, Stan is more aware of how the broader economic winds are blowing. He warns the three friends, "You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico, wherever."
Sure enough, the company announces that it will move its operations south of the border unless the workers take a pay cut. A strike ensues, and the company hires immigrants at lower wages to replace them. The friendships fray spectacularly as each woman tries to survive her personal economic apocalypse. Yes, it will give coastal elites (you know who you are) some insight about Trump's victory.