|l-r Mary Mara (Tracey) and Portia (Cynthia) star in Sweat|
By Darlene Donloe
Shit just got real!
If you want to find out who your real friends are, or who people are in general, watch “them” lose their livelihoods while simultaneously realizing “you” still have your income. Watch them think their friend, with whom they’ve worked side by side for 20 years – has abandoned them because they have become management. Watch how tempers escalate quickly and friendships dissolve when one friend thinks another friend has betrayed them. And, of course, the plot thickens when race becomes part of the equation. You see, some of the players are white and the others are black.
This, in a nutshell, is the premise behind Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Sweat, currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum through October 7, 2018.
The show opens in 2008 with a parole officer (Kevin T. Carroll) questioning a white, tattooed parolee named Jason (Will Hochman), who is full of anger about what happened eight years prior. Next, we see the parole officer questioning Chris (Grantham Coleman) a black parolee full of remorse about what happened eight years before. Jason and Chris were friends in 2000, but an event changed both of their lives sending them both to prison. Of course, we’re not privy to what the friends did to land themselves in prison. We have to wait until nearly the end of the play to find out.
Picture it, the year is 2000 and several Pennsylvania factory workers who are longtime friends who frequently meet at a neighborhood bar in Reading, appear to be happy as clams because they have good blue collar jobs, health benefits and friends for life. Or do they? The jobs, which they think are secure – because they have had them north of 20 years, are also held by some of their family members.
The friends are Cynthia, who is black and Tracey, who is white.
Their happiness takes a serious left when one of the friends, who is black, is promoted and things begin to change at the factory. Soon layoffs, promotions and picket lines begin to chip away at their trust. The friends find themselves pitted against each other in a heart-wrenching fight to stay afloat.
The dialogue-heavy, drama-driven race-tinged show, which had its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, is unapologetically emotional with spurts of hilarity. It’s full of racial issues, economic concerns, political outrage and even entitlement due to tenure. Once confident in their futures, factory workers must now worry about the efforts of NAFTA possibly ending their livelihoods. The workers are not willing to go quietly
A case study on characters, Nottage’s show, which clocks in north of two hours, well defines each of the nine personalities featured. The apex of the play is how quickly a once colorblind friendship can turn due to racial division and, ultimately, survival.
The two main characters are Cynthia, played by Portia, and Tracey, played by Mary Mara. Tracey’s family has worked at the factory for decades. Both Cynthia and Tracey, who have been friends for decades, also have sons who work at the factory. Both women have strong, fiery, take-no-shit personalities. When Cynthia gets a promotion, one Tracey was also vying for, their friendship is put to the test. Tracey begins to fill betrayed because she thinks Cynthia, who is part of the administration, refused to give them a head’s up when layoffs were going to begin at the factory. Although Cynthia tries to smooth things over, it’s to no avail. Race and loyalty have raised their ugly heads.
When Chris (Cynthia’s son) and Jason (Tracey’s son) get wind of a scab taking one of the jobs at the factory after the two of them have been laid off, things get a bit violent.
The outcome is horrific and, unfortunately, something they can’t come back from.
There are excellent performances by all of the players. John Earl Jelks, who plays Brucie, Cynthia’s ex-husband and Chris’s father, illuminates the stage, as does Michael O’Keefe who plays Stan (the bar owner), Kevin T. Carroll (Evan), who plays Jason’s and Chris’s parole officer, and Portia and Mary Mara.
Noteworthy performances from Amy Pietz, who plays Jessie, a longtime factory worker and Peter Mendoza, who plays Oscar, the man who works in the bar with Stan, but leaves to cross the picket line and take a better job at the factory.
Lisa Peterson’s direction is fluid and crisp, while Christopher Barreca’s massive set design deserves an applause.
The entire show, lethargic at times with its heady monologues and lack of action, rings of authenticity. Kudos to the production team and the actors. The show is worth every drop of Sweat.
Sweat, directed by Lisa Peterson and written by Lynn Nottage, stars Portia, Mary Mara, Kevin T. Carroll, Mary Mara, Michael O’Keefe, John Earl Jelks, Will Hochman, Grantham Coleman, Peter Mendoza, Amy Pietz.
The creative team includes set design by Christopher Barreca, costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Anne Militello, sound design by Paul James Prendergast and projection design by Yee Eun Nam. The production stage manager is David S. Franklin.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Sweat gets an E (excellent).
Sweat, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. L.A.; 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); ends October 7; Tickets: $30-$99 (subject to change). Information: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org.