‘Sweat’ doesn’t back down from harsh realities of working-class America

Anne Tromsness, Photo by Will Crooks

“Sweat,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical written by Lynn Nottage, addresses some of the most-difficult issues that working-class America faces today, and does not back down from the harsh realities that plague the working class of Reading, Pennsylvania.

“Sweat” follows the lives of several residents of Reading, a town described as “synonymous with deindustrialization” and a home of the “blue-collar workers who voted in Donald Trump as president.” The action of the show takes place between the current time in a bar and scenes eight years earlier, which Nottage uses to show how the characters’ lives take divergent paths, many of which revolve around layoffs, poverty, and race relations.

The Warehouse Theatre will premier “Sweat” on Oct. 12, directed by Charlotte native Martin Damien Wilkins.

“The context and the climate in which it premiered was really politically fraught,” Wilkins says of the show. “They walked out on stage and kind of said, we were the people who weren’t being heard. Part of what Lynn was able to do was not only document it but dramatize it in a beautiful way.”

While many of the characters share circumstances, like jobs and family lives, their differences in experience are stark, ranging from racial inequality to job security. The show documents their attempt to find and cling to commonalities.

Anne Tromsness, who portrays Stacy, a middle-aged woman who is dealing with the death of her husband and hardships at work, says, “One thing a play like this does is it brings to light how close we are. What’s heartbreaking is that these characters have a lot more in common than they don’t, but it’s the differences that break them apart. There are outside forces that are more to blame, and if they could rally against those things, they could save their relationships. This experience is one in starting to look at, where are the opportunities that I could search for common ground?”

This play does not focus on intense drama or unlikely events, but rather events, challenges, and triumphs that mirror everyday life.

“Part of the resonance of a play like ‘Sweat’ is there isn’t an attempt to make heroes out of these characters, as much as it is about depicting what their day-to-day lives are and how it’s impacted by those around them,” Wilkins explains.

Part of Nottage’s brilliance in the show comes from her ability to give a voice to characters who carry unpopular opinions, including a white nationalist with tattoos covering his face. These characters were inspired by Nottage’s time in Reading researching the show and the town.

“There isn’t a single character in this play that you can dismiss, even the white supremacist,” Tromsness says. “That’s a testament to the writing, that we are forced to examine the characters’ humanity and our own humanity.”

To create a character that is fundamentally difficult to agree with or like is no small task for the writer, director, or actor portraying him or her.

“It is one thing to sit at home and learn lines of a character who says things that are hurtful and racist, but it’s another to look a human being in the eyes and say those things, even as a character,” Tromsness says. “It’s been a process that I wish more people could go through, to sit in a room and talk about these tough issues. For me, right now, we are in tough and tumultuous times and the nature of our conversations doesn’t always reflect that complexity.”

The challenges this show brings about are for both those involved creatively and the audience.

“I think that is what a really good play should do; it should ask really difficult questions and not even try to answer them. It’s uncanny how this play knows what questions to ask,” says Jayce Tromsness, who plays Stan, a local who became a bartender after an injury cost him his job at the steel factory.

This show has been acclaimed for its uncanny timeliness of addressing issues that are prominent today, and especially when it first premiered in 2015. The characters portray those who are often overlooked on the political and economic spectrum, and seek to give them voices, understanding, and a story.

“I think it’s more relevant than anything I’ve ever seen,” says Jayce Tromsness. “I’ve been teaching theater for over 20 years and I don’t usually worry if my students come see my work, but this might be one of the three or four plays of my entire career that I will demand for them to see, as theater students but also citizens.”

If you go

  • What: “Sweat”
  • When: Oct. 12-28
  • Where: The Warehouse Theatre
  • Tickets: Starting at $35
  • Info: www.warehousetheatre.com

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