Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” At San Diego Rep. Stabs At The Heart Of The State Of Our Union.

Like so many others, I didn’t see it coming. Like so many others I was first in line to blame our current administration on the deep divides in this country (not that it hasn’t added to them).

Like so many others I didn’t know much about NAFTA even thought my late brother, who drove a big rig for a living warned me that it was a bad deal.

Like so many other families ours always did, and still does support unions. My late uncle was a union steward. My dad belonged to the Butchers Union; my late husband’s uncle was a union boss.

Steve Froehlich and Cortez L. Johnson
Like the nine characters in Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s 2017 drama “Sweat”, currently making its local premiere at the Lyceum Theatre downtown through May 12th, the union was their security blanket; they lived it, breathed it, swore by it, shared experiences of ‘working the floor’ and memories of shared celebrations; in other words unions were the glue that held them together.  Now their machines were disappearing by the numbers and their jobs would be next.  

Generations of their families worked in the steel-tubing factory there. There is Reading, Penn. They were born in Berks County, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Rust Belt.

They are African- American, White -American of German descent, Columbian- American, Italian-American.  Now their adult children worked in the same factory; it’s a right of passage. But nothing lasts forever. As Bob Dylan sings “Things they are a’changing”.

We meet up with Tracy, Cynthia and Jessie (Judy Bauerlein, Monique Gaffney and Hannah Logan) in their favorite watering hole (John Iacovelli bar set design with Anne E. McMills lighting design) after Jessie’s birthday party celebration.
(Far Left to Right) Antonio A.J. johnson, Matt Orduna, Judy Bauerlein, Monique Gaffney, Hannah Logan
Jessie is wasted, Cynthia and Tracy try to pick up the pieces and offering some advise from the peanut gallery, on how to get Jessie out, Stan (Jason Hei) the bartender, injured on the job, is ready to call it night as is Oscar his helper.  It’s Jan. 18th, 2000. Eight years later in 2008, Jason (Steve Froehlich) and Chris (Cortez Johnson) are getting released from prison. They are getting their final exit interview by Evan (Antonio T.J. Johnson) their social worker/parole officer.

The two will factor into the changing scheme of things as the play progress as it does moving back and forth in time giving us references (projected –Samantha Rojales- on the overhead) to the financial climate, historical events and conditions of the times and finally leading up to the eventual dismantling of the plant, say nothing of the union. 

Her play is a series of vignettes that bring us in close proximity to all the characters as they struggle with finances, family issues, work related issues, husbands and ex- husbands, money and of course the union. (“We’ve been having the same conversation for twenty years.”)

Over the course of two and one half years playwright Nottage spent interviewing the residents of Reading in order to help her understand why it was, according to then 2011 census, the ‘poorest city in America for its size’.
Jason Heil, Hannah Logan and Judy Bauerlein
According to program notes, “she stumbled upon a group of steel workers who had been locked out of their plant for 93 weeks”. No work of fiction this, although the characters are most likely a compilation of those interviewed.  

When things are going well, color and race are blended and issues of same escape under the radar. But when the ‘you know what’ hits the fan-, and a person of color or foreign sounding name pulls ahead in the race, or when race or those with accents become the target then and only then are they the scapegoats. This is  centuries old prejudice. Let's face it, the Civil War is still a plague.

The playwright's findings come to life when artistic director Sam Woodhouse and his top of the line cast/ensemble bring this highly sensitive, occasionally funny, and dramatically true to life production of her years of work to the fore.

Yours truly ‘got it’ without having to be hit over the head over and over again. Some culling is in order and as for the overhead projections that were probably used to help with the history, were more of a distraction.
Monique Gaffney and Jason Heil
That aside, strong performance are spread out throughout the production with Monique Gaffney’s Cynthia an all around winner in a losing situation by becoming part of management over Judy Bauerlein’s Tracey, who felt she was more worthy of the position. Bauerlein's Tracy puts in another very strong performance making her a worthy opponent for Gaffney's Cynthia. Both women are highly credible in making us see from whence they come. 

Tracey's reasoning is so typical; they chose the black worker over the white. While the rest still stand on their feet and sweat over the job, Cynthia gets to spend her days in an air -conditioned office. You bet there is resentment. Now that's just surface. 

When the jobs dry up because of a weakening of the unions and the paychecks shrink or go away, as we see now, anyone non- white or non citizen becomes a threat. It's a domino effect playing out now. The feeding chain attacts the the most vulnerable. Nottage saw it and heard it first hand during her interviews.

Here is where the pedal hits the metal and game on. Nothing will be the same for any of these friends when a fight (James Newcomb is fight director) of magnitude breaks out (Jeffrey Jones was hurt in this scene and was replaced by an exceptionally prepared Jason Heil while Jones recovers) because Oscar is thinking of crossing the picket line.  Stan is hurt beyond repair.

Heil steals the show from his innocuous job as bartender and giver of free advise to, well, no spoilers here, but what you will see in the aftermath of the fight is a heartbreaking scene that will never answer the question of “Was it worth it?”

Both Johnson and Froehlich add color and youth and machismo to the game and Hannah Logan’s Jessie brings her own insecurities with her drug and alcohol abuse to the table. Elisa Benzoni designed the appropriate and date worthy costumes and sound designer Matthew Lescault-Wood, the music coming for the bar.

Matt Orduña’s Bruce as the out of work, homeless and addicted husband of Cynthia who adds more drama into her life than she can really handle at the time. Both feed off each in a fine match of domestic chaos.

Markuz Rodreguez and Judy Bauerlein
Markuz Rodriguez’ Oscar who cannot get work at the plant (“you gotta know somebody to get in…it’s that kind a shop”. “Always has been.”), is the under the radar character who observes, takes matters into his own hands, cleans and fixes the bar when needed and comes out on top of the game.

Antonio T.J. Johnson is fine as the understated parole officer, Evan, in charge of keeping track of Jason and Chris. He bookends the play when we first meet the two young men in over an eight year time line.

So here we are in 2019 heading into 2020 and what started well before 2000, the hate the violence and blame game is now spreading over the landscape like a larva flow, and rather than putting the fires out, our current leaders are now fanning the flames of hatred, violence and mass killings. Foreign agents are cuddling up to our non -leader leaders in the White House while those in the grandstands, who can stop it, watch idly by.

Race has always been a catalyst for division in this country and Nottage, with her deeply troubling “Sweat” has managed to show us just how troubling it is in real time. We need a rewind, but that won’t happen until we the people can see past the hate and prejudice and the damage it has caused to the state of our union.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through May 12th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619-544-1000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $25.00
Web: sdrep.org
Venue: Lyceum Stage
Photo: Jim Carmody

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