Thursday 25 October 2018

BLR long-read
Sweat tells a gritty tale of rust-belt anger run amok
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : "Don't sweat the small stuff!" was a Bubba Clinton rallying cry just 25 years back. "And remember, it's all small stuff," the smug quip-of-the-day continued. Not anymore. Not in today's Fractured States of America.

Sweat by black playwright Lynn Nottage was written pre-Trump, perhaps, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning script begun in 2011 anticipated in toto the abandonment of the Democratic Party by white blue collar rust-belt workers. How they instantly ditched their Jack Daniels & Coke for a giant slug of Donny-boy's orange-kool-aid on November 8, 2016.

As Cynthia (Marci T. House) muses with Stan the barkeep (Ashley Wright) over her good fortune to become a factory supervisor, tensions in the local after-work watering hole being to fester and boil over.
Photo credit : David Cooper
In a brilliant analysis just last week, Columbia University professor Jeffrey D. Sachs underscored playwright Nottage's capture of USA nativist backlash when he noted : "America's founding credo was that 'all men are created equal'. Yet the founding reality was that white males were far more equal than everyone else. White men owned slaves, denied the vote to women and took the lands and lives of native Americans." And so when Trump demonised NAFTA and disparaged the great sucking sound of jobs disappearing to Mexico, Joe Plumber and his pals responded gustily.

What the show brings to the stage : Ms. Nottage toggles the action between the year 2000 (pre-9/11) and 2008 immediately after the Goldman Sachs collapse and the New Recession kicked in. The primary tale told is of two women, one white, one black, long-time friends employed at the Oldstead metal tubing factory in Reading, PA. A management supervisory position comes up and black Cynthia beats out her white friend Tracey for the job. 

Shortly Oldstead downsizes, sends some production to Mexico, and the workers strike / are locked-out. Ad nauseam. The seething racism borne centuries back emerges, violently, amidst the 40% poverty rate in the town. Both the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal heralded Nottage's script as "explaining" the "landmark win" of the Trump era. 

Now ex-cons, Jason (Chris W. Cook) and Jason (Andrew Creightley) compare notes how their future in Reading, PA looks to each of them while barkeep Stan (Ashley Wright) listens in and mediates their tensions. 
Photo credit : David Cooper
Theatrical highlights : Class, race, culture, loyalty, poverty, drugs all strut and fret their 2.5 hours on stage in Sweat. Tracey's son Jason and Cynthia's son Chris have history, too : both are now ex-cons as a result of a brutal bar-room brawl they took part in back in Y2K. While Chris now dreams of kick-starting his interrupted teacher training, Jason seethes with white hot rage at how his job prospects are even worse given his prison record. He sleeps rough in a tent on Reading's outskirts, adorned with outsize nazi tats.

Jason tells his black parole officer Evan (Anthony Santiago) that all he can see is a "blinding fury" at the new world order. Evan counsels him to the effect of "Most people think it's anger and fear that are behind it all, but really it's shame about who we've become."

In an interview with The Guardian, meanwhile, Nottage -- also a Columbia University prof -- noted : "In the play one of the characters says 'Nostalgia is a disease', and I do believe that it's a disease that many white Americans have. They're hold on this notion of what America was, even though we know it never was that. It's this false notion of America. It was never great, at least from my point of view. It was always problematic. The 'golden age' was for like a handful of people."

And, as if to prove that even a playwright's insights can blind them to the light, Nottage was asked by The Guardian in her February, 2016 pre-election interview about the prospect nine months later of a Trump victory : "I absolutely refuse to contemplate that," she asserted, "I really do not see a future where that is possible." 

Production values that hi-lite the script :  Shizuka Kay’s Pennsylvania tavern interior is visually commanding with its angled laminate beams effecting a narrowed perspective that stares out at the 60-year-old factory wall with its dozens of unrepaired broken windows. As well, Jenifer Darbellay’s factory Carhartts were as one would expect to see : uniforms taken utterly for granted by their wearers, albeit Tracey's fresh-off-the-shelf steel toed Dakota's were altogether too slick. 

But most of all this is a play about and for and by its performers : their poignant dialogue revealing the bitternesses that arise when competition for scarce dollars and scarcer pride come into direct conflict among life-long friends.

Acting pin-spots : Valerie Planche had a keen eye for her characters’ nuances that underscore all the dramatic tension in the piece. As Cynthia, Marci T. House creates an utterly compelling black woman who has dreams and ambitions beyond what her more hapless white friends can muster. Not hard, indeed, to accuse playwright Nottage of creating stereotypical white trash characters if one were inclined in a racist direction. Nicole St. Martin as Tracey could easily fit into such a mindset. 

But with the kindly barkeep Stan (Ashley Wright) and his Latino gofer Oscar (Alen Dominguez), Nottage forces viewers to retreat from any such simple-minded notions that this is just a #BlackLivesMatter screed. 

But perhaps best of all was the desperation depicted by Anthony Santiago as the long-suffering striker Brucie — Cynthia’s estranged husband. Forceful, gripping & stunning his slide away from USA's kinder, gentler times of prosperity. 

Who gonna likeThis is fighting, biting, gut-wrenching naturalistic theatre. Easy it would be to conclude it’s another Marxist diatribe against the evils of Kapitalismus. Or, worse, perhaps, a jab at an America where Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty has been vandalized to read “Forget! your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores." 

Lady Liberty's torch has morphed, Nottage suggests, into a symbolic middle finger that thrusts defiantly at all from away. Worse, She seems to sport a new frock proclaiming Melania's "I really don't care" slogan. 

For a grab-you-by-the-throat picture of what happens to Americans who feel themselves cut morally adrift by their times, this is the real thing writ large. 

Particulars : Canadian premiere co-produced by the Arts Club Theatre -and- Citadel Theatre, Edmonton. On at ACT's Stanley Theatre stage, 11th & Granville. Runs until November 18, 2018. Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.687.1644 or Show-time two hours, 35 minutes, one intermission. [Re-mount scheduled for The Citadel in January, 2019.]

Production teamDirector Valerie Planche.  Assistant Director Jay Northcott. Set Designer Shizuka Kay.  Costume Designer Jenifer Darbellay.  Sound Designer Mishelle Cuttler.  Lighting Designer Daniela Masellis.  Assistant Costume Designer Alaia Hamer. Voice Coach Alison. Matthews. Fight Director Jonathan Hawley Purvis. Stage Manager Rick Rinder. Assistant Stage Manager Jenny Kim. 

Performers :  Lora Brovald (Jessie). Chris W. Cook (Jason). Andrew Creightney (Chris).  Alen Dominguez (Oscar).  Marci T. House (Cynthia).  Anthony Santiago (Evan / Brucie). Nicole St. Martin (Tracey).  Ashley Wright (Stan).


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