In 'Sweat,' Adapting To Change Is The Hardest Work Of All

Jan 21, 2016
Originally published on January 27, 2016 3:45 pm

The aptly titled Sweat is all about work — and the fear of losing it. In the new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lynn Nottage, change is coming for workers at a steel tubing plant. "They've got buttons now that can replace all of us," one character says. Sure enough, the company is about to move production to Mexico and ask longtime union workers to accept lower wages. They refuse, and end up locked out and replaced by immigrant labor.

It's a scenario that has played out many times over decades in cities like Reading, Pa., where Sweat takes place. In 2011, Nottage was commissioned to write a play for "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle," a series of plays produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Nottage says she wanted to write about "how poverty and economic stagnation were shifting the American narrative."

At the time, Reading had been named the poorest city in the country by the Census Bureau. Nottage — who's known for deep investigations into her subjects — spent more than two years visiting Reading and getting to know the people there. She says she met families where parents and children alike had factory jobs and union cards.

"Two generations of people had worked in the same factory ..." she explains. "One card was passed from father to son or mother to daughter. That's just the way it functioned. These were very good jobs. People were making livable wages. People had bought homes and had really established roots in a city like Reading because there was work — and there was decent work."

Nottage met factory workers, business leaders, public officials, teachers, social workers and artists. She got to know a local union leader, Dean Showers, who worked at a steel tubing plant for 38 years. Just like in the play, Showers and about 50 other workers have been locked out of their plant for almost five years.

Sweat goes back and forth in time — between 2000 and 2008 — before and after an act of violence we don't see until the end. There aren't really any good guys. Workers gripe about the union, complain about the physical labor, and are hardly a united front. Those who are happy with the status quo are bitter toward those who hope to one day get off the factory floor.

Showers attended a preview of Sweat at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and says the characters ring true. He started working in the steel tubing plant when he was 18. He went to college but dropped out. Now he's 62 and locked out of his job.

"I was making really great money for a single, young teenager who didn't know what he wanted to do," Showers says. "Yeah, there's a lot of regret to that. ... The only thing that's good is I can be a better adviser to my daughter. And I've told her, 'Don't make the mistakes that I made.'"

That's tough to do in a town like Reading, where so much pride is tied up in the past. Nottage says whenever she met someone in Reading, she always asked them: How would you describe your city?

"People always said 'Reading was ...' and no one ever spoke of their city in present tense — they always spoke of it in past tense," Nottage says. "And that really broke my heart. ... When I pushed them further people spoke a great deal about feeling invisible: We feel as though our city government doesn't see us. We feel as though the rest of the country doesn't see it."

Nottage says she expected her research in Reading would result in a play about "the resilience of working people." Sweat is not that. Rather, it's a gripping narrative about how people adapt to change — or don't.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Anger, denial and blame - there's plenty of all three in a new play - "Sweat" by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. "Sweat" is about work and the fear of losing it. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more on the play and the people who inspired it.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Workers at a steel tubing plant gather at a local bar, drink beer and talk. Change is coming. Jason is in denial. Chris sees the writing on the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SWEAT")

TRAMELL TILLMAN: (As Chris) Like last week - remember they had a couple of white-hats walking the floor?

STEPHEN MICHAEL SPENCER: (As Jason) Yeah, so, Dude? Maybe they're just upgrading the equipment.

TILLMAN: (As Chris) They've got buttons - boop (ph) - now that can replace all of us - boop, boop, boop.

SPENCER: (As Jason, laughter) Come on, man. You're being paranoid.

BLAIR: No, he's not. The company moves some production to Mexico. Longtime union workers refuse to accept lower wages. They're locked out and replaced by immigrant labor. It's a scenario that has played out many times over decades in cities like Reading, Pa., where the play takes place.

LYNN NOTTAGE: I happened upon Reading because I was really interested in the way in which poverty and economic stagnation was shifting the American narrative.

BLAIR: Lynn Nottage spent more than two years visiting Reading and getting to know the people there. She says she met families where parents and children alike had factory jobs and union cards.

NOTTAGE: Where two generations of people had worked in the same factory, where one card was passed from father to son or mother to daughter. That's just the way it functioned. And these were very good jobs. People were making livable wages. People had bought homes and had really established roots in a city like Reading because there was work, and there was decent work.

DEAN SHOWERS: My name's Dean Showers, and I am from Reading. And I did work at the same tube company for what would've been about 38 years.

BLAIR: Dean Showers is not an actor. He's one of the people Lynn Nottage got to know during her trips to Reading. Just like in the play, he and about 50 other workers have been locked out of their plant for almost five years. "Sweat" goes back and forth in time between 2000 and 2008, before and after an act of violence we don't see until the end. There aren't really any good guys. Workers like Chris and Jason complain about the union...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SWEAT")

SPENCER: (As Jason) Union's got all our money tied up in benefits.

TILLMAN: (As Chris) [Expletive].

SPENCER: (As Jason) We ain't got nothing left for fun.

TILLMAN: (As Chris) You ain't lying.

BLAIR: ...And about the physical labor.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SWEAT")

TILLMAN: (As Chris) And I'm [expletive] sick of (unintelligible). The machines are so [expletive] loud I can't even think. It's getting harder and harder to pull myself up and go to work every day.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Character) You're tripping.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Character) I hear you.

BLAIR: There's tension between workers - the ones who are happy with the status quo and those who want to get off the factory floor, like Chris.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SWEAT")

TILLMAN: (As Chris) I got accepted into the teaching program at Albright.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Character) What? Come again?

TILLMAN: (As Chris) Yeah, yeah, start...

BLAIR: His friends are dismissive and tell him he'll make more money if he stays at the plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SWEAT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Character) And I know a couple of old-timers bringing in close to $47 an hour not teaching.

TILLMAN: (As Chris) Well, that's cool. Good for them. But I kind of want to do something a little different than my moms and pops.

BLAIR: Dean Showers says the characters in "Sweat" ring true. He started working in the steel tubing plant when he was 18. He went to college but dropped out.

SHOWERS: I was making really great money for a single, young teenager that didn't know what he wanted to do. And yeah, there's a lot of regret to that, you know?

BLAIR: Now he's 62 and locked out of his job.

SHOWERS: The only thing that's good is, you know, I can kind of be a better adviser to my youngest daughter and tell her, don't make the mistakes that I made.

BLAIR: That's tough to do in a town like Reading, where so much pride is tied up in the past. Playwright Lynn Nottage says whenever she met someone in Reading, she always asked them, how would you describe your city?

NOTTAGE: And people always said Reading was - and no one ever spoke of their city in present tense. They always spoke of it in past tense, and that really broke my heart. And then when I pushed them further, people spoke a great deal about feeling invisible. We feel as though our city's government doesn't see us. We feel as though the rest of the country doesn't see it.

BLAIR: With "Sweat," Lynn Nottage has created a strong, dramatic narrative from real experiences in Reading. It's a story about how people adapt to change or don't. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.