Sweat, a blue-collar tragedy of work and race, at the Citadel: A review

Nicole St. Martin and Ashley Wright, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If you’ve ever wondered why disenfranchised workers seem to vote, time and again, against their own economic self-interest — and it’s a moment in history to be awestruck by that — the play currently onstage at the Citadel speaks powerfully to that. 

In a world where ruthless capitalism has leached not just the future but the soul from blue-collar labour, simmering disappointment, betrayal, and bewilderment turn into rage. And rage looks for an easy target, like race. Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s prophetic Pulitzer Prize winner, which dates from 2015, pre-Trump, is about that. It’s ugly, it’s compassionate, and its violence has the inevitability of Greek tragedy. 

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Sweat arrives on the mainstage in a gritty and intense Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club co-production directed by Valerie Planche, that bristles with fully committed performances. The focal point of Nottage’s big, crammed canvas of an industrial America going down down down, is the neighbourhood bar that’s a second home for factory workers to gather post-shift to chill, share news, and/or get wasted. In Shizuka Kai’s atmospheric design, it’s one of those cluttered havens, where the bartender has a jar for the car keys of the blotto, in the shadow of an eerie skeletal town. 

It’s where three old working-class friends, who’ve sweated on the line for decades (like their parents and grandparents before them), always celebrate their birthdays together: Tracey (Nicole St. Martin), Cynthia (Marci T. House), and Jessie (Lora Brovold), along with an empathetic bartender (Ashley Wright) who worked the line himself till a leg injury at work intervened.

Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago in Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

We’re in the the dying rustbelt town of Reading, Penn.(where the  playwright did extensive first-hand research), sustained for generations by its steel tubing factory factory and by blue-collar loyalty. What happens to a haven that turns into a dangerous tinderbox, and what happens to friendship that operates easily across racial lines, is a complex story of disintegration — of friendships, marriages, dreams, hopes. Lay-offs, lock-outs as a negotiating tool, salary rollbacks, the corporate crushing of unions, picket lines and the temps who cross them … they all take their toll on the old bonds. And as Planche’s production chronicles, tensions escalate, fuelled by white racist venom and lubricated by booze and drugs. The past, and all its sweat equity, is under siege; the future may not exist.

“Tell me what I did wrong,” says Cynthia’s sometime husband Brucie (Anthony Santiago), sliding into druggy despair. He stood with the union, that’s what he did. And he got locked out for years, for his loyalty.

The immediate trigger is a promotion to low-level management of the African-American Cynthia over the head of Tracey, her white co-worker. And nothing is the same after that. As the former, House, compellingly authentic, conveys the conflicted drive of a woman torn between loyalty and the only opportunity for advancement she’s ever had, as a black person in a oppressive racist culture. The moment will turn to ashes. As she breaks the news of a 60 per cent pay cut and lay-offs she wonders if the promotion wasn’t a set-up so that that the African-American will be the message-bearer.

Marci T. House and Ashley Wright, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

St. Martin is just superb as the fiery Tracey, incinerating her own better, more cordial instincts in a conflagration of resentment, anti-immigrant and racist fury, and irrational blame. It’s a performance that really bites into the character, and virtually ricochets across the stage on a jet stream of anger. Brovold as Jessie, gradually dissolving in booze, is excellent too.

In fact, the ensemble takes the overlapping rhythms, the ebbs and surges of bar encounters, into its collective bones. As Stan the bartender, Wright, who is a terrific actor, presides over the scene as a the calming, humane father figure and seer whose resignation occasionally splinters. Did the company reward the loyalty of a worker of 28 years standing when he got injured? “I was nothing!” he says.

In an ensemble that’s convincing through and through, Oscar, the ignorable Colombian-American bar busboy, is mostly silent and altogether invisible to the clientele — until he isn’t. Alen Dominguez is excellent: watchful, patient, wary, shut out by both the corporate and the social culture. A little scene, furious and somehow a bit poignant, between Oscar and the hostile Tracey as he tries to bum a cigarette lingers in the mind. 

Chris W. Cook and Anthony Santiago, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

The play, which unfolds in scenes separated by an ominous industrial heartbeat in Mishelle Cuttler’s score, opens in 2008 (the year not coincidentally that America’s banks pleaded crisis and got a bail-out). It opens with Tracey’s and Cynthia’s sons, Jason (Chris W. Cook) and Chris (Andrew Creightney) respectively, getting out of prison for an unspecified crime that will be revealed at the end.

They are struggling with disappointment and failure, in different ways. Jason, still rippling with fury, has turned into some sort of white supremacist. Chris tries his luck with religion. Their lives have been tainted forever, and they know it. And Sweat returns to them at the end. They are, after all, the human cost going forward of a terrible failure to read the writing on the wall, and understand that the world has left them behind. 

PREVIEW

Sweat

Theatre: Vancouver Arts Club and Citadel

Written by: Lynn Nottage

Directed by: Valerie Planche

Starring: Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Lora Brovold, Ashley Wright, Anthony Santiago, Andrew Creightney, Chris W. Cook, Alen Dominguez

Running: Thursday through Feb. 3

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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