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The Persistent Social Commentary of Nottage’s “Sweat”

Valasandra Hightower, 29 July 2022

The labor dispute at the center of Lynn Nottage’s 2015 drama Sweat serves merely as the breaking point for pre-existing social divisions that will continue to be relevant for years to come. In this play, it is impressed that the cyclic nature of economic downturns creates tipping points in the lives of individuals that lead to desperation and a permanent decline in quality of life. The message to the audience is that these problems are not going away on their own, and that we all participate in them in some way. Nottage employs several social divisions to illustrate this central theme, including those surrounding age, nationality, ethnicity, social class, politics, and economic status. While calling attention to social issues with lasting relevance, Nottage manages to indirectly but effectively undercut several pervasive socioeconomic fallacies.

The generational blue-collar aspect of Brucie, Stan, and Stan’s father and grandfather demonstrates that the economic hardships faced by the workers in Reading (both at Olstead’s factory and Brucie’s employer) are cyclical, but there is an inherent gap between the generations. The generational component adds a layer of complexity to the dispute, as the characters reminisce with pride on how their family histories are woven into the history of the company.  Stan explains this several times with a certain amount of reverence:

Stan: “My dad put forty-two years into building that plant, those benefits, those wages…guess what? He fought for ‘em when the going wasn’t so great.” (Nottage 1827).

Stan: “Not many people walk away from Olstead’s, cuz you’re not gonna find better money out there.” (Nottage 1792).

Stan: “Three generations on the floor, loyal as hell.” (Nottage 1795).

Another historical perspective is provided by Brucie, who indicates to Chris that the key to surviving a labor dispute is solidarity. However, he is on the receiving end of a two-year lockout, implying that the solidarity strategy did not work for him this time around. His son Chris reminisces about how different his father’s reaction is now in comparison with the previous dispute, an indication that there are key differences in the current (2000) situation, telling him “You looked like warriors, arms linked, standing together…I remember the fire in your voice and how it made me feel…yesterday as I was walking the line…all I could think about was your words that evening. What it means to stand strong.” (Nottage 1825). This emotional appeal demonstrates how difficult it is for any of the workers to simply “let go” of the job, or even to take any action that would differ from how their fathers or grandfathers dealt with labor disputes. Stan states, “[Olstead’s] hasn’t changed much since my grandfather began working there in ’22.” (Nottage 1789). He knows, however, that the regulatory environment that the company exists in has changed significantly, as he had earlier indicated, “You saw what happened over at Clemmons Technologies. You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico, whatever, it’s this NAFTA bullshit –” (Nottage 1786). With the enactment of NAFTA, the company now has the opportunity to relocate to Mexico, leaving the higher-paid Reading workers with uncertain unemployment in a community whose main economy relies on that company. The political and economic forces are against the workers, but they still feel like they retain some amount of power over their fates.

A second social division is racism. Ethnicity and nationality play a complex role from the start of the play. Each character description specifies ethnicity, age, and nationality, so we can assume that these attributes are critical to the theme. Each of these attributes arises at least once in a set-up for conflict in Act Two. The paired black/white friendships of Chris/Jason and Cynthia/Tracey serve an important purpose in the theme of this play. These friendships undercut the common “I can’t be a racist because I have black friends” argument. When Jason is released from prison, he has “white supremacist tattoos inked across his face” (Nottage 1777) and uses racial slurs directed at his parole officer, when he exclaims “Fuck you, nigga!” (Nottage 1779). This is also mentioned by Chris, who is conflicted due to Jason’s role in his incarceration, as he shows when he tells his parole officer, “He had tats on his face…You know, Aryan Brotherhood…I’m expecting him to walk away…and then it just happens…weird…We’re hugging. Hugging. I don’t know why.” (Nottage 1781). But Jason’s bias existed prior to his incarceration. There are indications of this when he tells Chris, “how come there’s no White History Month?” (Nottage 1792), which is also an indication of zero-sum thinking that is addressed later in this essay. Nottage presents us with another black/white friendship that is complicated by bias. When Cynthia receives the promotion, Tracey insists that she got the promotion simply because she is black, as Jessie confides to Stan, “Tracey’s been going around town whispering that the only reason Cynthia got the job is because she’s black. Two months ago she couldn’t give a shit, and suddenly –” (Nottage 1804). Tracey, however, has already admitted to Oscar that she knows the reason she was passed up, as she admits “[Butz (the outgoing manager)] told everyone in management I’m unstable” (Nottage 1803). Without directly stating it, Nottage has developed an effective argument that “Yes, you can have black friends and still be a racist.” The play’s ending does not entirely resolve these two conflicts; they are simply presented to the audience without commentary – an indication that these issues remain unresolved – both for the characters in the play and in society at large. The main plot focuses on the action that landed Jason and Chris in prison, which was the severe accidental injury to a neutral character (Stan) during a physical assault of a “scab worker,” who is the scapegoat for all of the above problems. And so, although the issue of racism is not critical to the plot, it is important to the central theme of Nottage’s message to her audience. She re-iterates this in her August 2018 interview with The Public Theater (New York):

“My real hope is that after the audience sees the play that they want to sit down and talk to someone who they’ve never had a conversation with before. I hope that they will ask really tough conversations not just of themselves, but of the legislators and the people who are in power.” (Public Theater 03:26 – 03:45).

The wealth gap and politics are emphasized via the news segments at the opening of each scene. Although these societal issues are rarely referenced in the dialogue, they are indicated to be the primary forces driving the changes to the company and therefore a leading cause of the labor dispute. The lack of attention that the characters pay to these political and economic forces is inversely proportional to their intense focus on the individual roles that each character plays in the labor dispute, as Tracey demonstrates when she interjects “What the fuck is NAFTA? … Well, I don’t read the paper, ok?” (Nottage 1786). Essentially, they have no way to act against the forces that created their situation, so in order to retain some feeling of power they act against the people who represent the opposition (i.e., Cynthia as a new manager, Oscar as a “scab worker”). Stan, as someone who has been through this before, attempts to provide a more balanced perspective and ease tensions with “Enough, c’mon. This is neutral territory.” (Nottage 1882), going so far as to defend Oscar when tensions heat up, when he says, “It ain’t [Oscar’s] fault. Talk to Olstead, his cronies. Fucking Wall Street. Oscar ain’t getting rich off your misery.” (Nottage 1833). Brucie’s perspective highlights that the worker’s situation is worse with this economic crisis, and goes a bit further by recommending that Chris not try to fight change:

Brucie: “Didn’t wanna take the new contract. Be a fucking slave…The hustle, man, my pop didn’t go through this shit.” (Nottage 1795).

Brucie: “It’s tough for me to say, I’m union to the end, but this don’t have to be your fight.” (Nottage 1825).

It is no wonder that Chris and Jason find themselves presented with difficult choices, as their perception is colored by conflicting opinions.

A third social division is economic status (i.e. blue collar vs. white collar), which is highlighted by Tracey’s reaction to Cynthia’s promotion. Note that there are actually social elements in play with Tracey, and it is important to address each of these. The first is her aforementioned latent racism, which surfaces when she is under pressure and seeks a convenient way to externalize blame for failing to obtain the promotion. The second is Cynthia’s transition from a blue collar “floor worker” to a white collar worker. Tracey now sees Cynthia as “the other,” as she is part of management and therefore in some part is now responsible for Tracey’s working conditions:

Tracey: “Management is for them, not for us.” (Nottage 1789).

Tracey: “I see you getting pretty chummy with “them.”” (Nottage 1809).

Cynthia acknowledges that she is now in a delicate balancing act between management and her friends from the floor, when she impresses on Tracey, “There’s a lotta pressure on me right now. They’re watching.” (Nottage 1809). This is a distressing statement on upward mobility and class division; that a simple promotion could come at the cost of detaching oneself from her previous life. That Nottage has combined two of the previously-described social divisions into one character indicates the complexity of the issues that Tracey represents, an element that adds depth and realism to her character.

With these expositions on social division, Nottage has created a compelling case that society is already at the boiling point over the combined effect of these tensions, and that adding financial pressure inevitably escalates them during a crisis. These social issues do not exist in isolation, but rather are exacerbated and triggered by one another. The cyclical nature of economic downturns means that similar events will unfold again in the future. Every such cycle will result in vulnerable populations being severely affected, which adds pressure to communities already at the brink of crisis. When a tipping point is reached, the people most affected by these issues become desperate, often leading to violence that results in collateral harm to people and a breakdown in social norms.

In Act II, Nottage gives her audience a bit of advice about navigating these crises through the voices of Stan and Brucie, who indicate that we always have a choice or alternative path if we can convince ourselves to take it:

Brucie: “You got options that I didn’t.” (Nottage 1826).

Stan: “You’re young, I mean there are a lotta things you could do. Maybe it’s time to move on, this place ain’t what it used to be.” (Nottage 1830).

The audience also gets a narrow glimpse of the path not taken: one where Chris goes to school, Jason takes a job on an oil rig, Oscar works at Olstead’s, and Stan does not get injured:

Jason: “I got a buddy who works on a rig in the Gulf, says he can get me something in the spring.” (Nottage 1830).

Chris: “I’ll…probably ride out unemployment…start college next September. The union’s offering some financial aid.” (Nottage 1830).

These are viable and realistic plans. The reason for the choices of the characters is one of distorted perspective by outside influence. Although these options existed, there was an underlying feeling that the outcome of the strike was a zero-sum game: that Oscar was benefiting at everyone else’s expense. Jason is instigated by his own mother, and Chris is overcome with his father’s advice:

Brucie: “Don’t let them temps in – fight it. Because once they do, you’re out.” (Nottage 1812).

Tracey: “[Oscar]’s eating your dinner, your steak and potatoes, your fucking dessert.” (Nottage 1833).

Tracey: “Hey Jason, he’s heading out to cash your check.” (Nottage 1834).

The external conflict with their plans create internal struggles for Chris and Jason. The echo chamber of the bar has finally collapsed in on itself, leaving everyone in a worse situation. There is an irony in that Oscar is trying to escape the bar while everyone else is trying to keep him there. Although never directly stated, Nottage demonstrates here that the zero-sum belief that “one person’s gain is another person’s loss” is a fallacy, specifically the “lump of labor fallacy” that “immigrant workers will leave too few jobs for a country’s native-born workers” (Federal Reserve). The news segments at the beginning of each scene also serve to challenge the belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats” by juxtaposing a rising stock market with impending job losses – a fact that was noted in 2005 as “the rising tide will lift some boats, but others will run aground” (Sperling). Both of these fallacies have a renewed resurgence in recent years via the binary choices presented by conservative identity politics. “In the conservative version of identity politics, however, everything’s a zero-sum game: Freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or other characteristics doesn’t unleash greater human potential to the benefit of all. Instead, it’s a step backward for everyone else, part of the never-ending war of all against all. Your gain is necessarily my loss.” (Schnurer). Nottage wrote these elements into the play with intention, as these social issues and the fallacies around them have a persistent nature.

The lesson Nottage teaches us is that reality exists somewhere in the complex middle ground, where each of us needs to find our own unique path forward through challenging times, instead of fighting against forces we cannot hope to win against. Chris regrets his choices and wonders what life would be like if he had made a different choice at the critical moment, as he laments, “For the first time I had an option other than jacking and a hangover. And I coulda walked away, and today I’d be –” (Nottage 1836). With their dialogue, Nottage invites the audience to contemplate their own choices in life, and how the options they see may be colored by their own biases and outside influences.

It is possible that by focusing only on class division, Nottage could have made the same point without specifying ethnicity, nationality, or age in the cast of characters. However, this would have been at the expense of her goal, which was to make the audience think about their own roles in these social issues. This also serves to create a sense of authenticity and provides a space for reflection on what these same social issues will look like in the inevitable next socioeconomic crisis.

Indeed, such a crisis unfolded less than five years after the play was written. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an economic crisis in 2020 – 2022 that “substantially magnified the inequality gaps” (Barron e86) brought to the stage during Sweat’s first run in 2015 – 2018. In fact, the overwhelming similarities of “anxiety, sadness, and anger” (Bethune) to the issues Nottage’s characters experience, as Chris boldly put it, “Makes you wanna hit somebody.” (Nottage 1811) and “I see those dudes heading into the plant and I wanna smack ‘em –” (Nottage 1824), the pandemic could easily provide ample material for a Third Act of her play, where the audience would be treated to watching the cycle play out yet again along the same political, racial, and economic lines. “The majority of adults reported the future of our nation (81%), the coronavirus pandemic (80%) and political unrest around the country (74%) as significant sources of stress in their lives. The events on Jan. 6 also impacted adults disproportionately.” (Bethune). This lends significant weight to the contemporary impact and continued relevance of this play to future audiences.

Works Cited

Barron GC, Laryea-Adjei G, Vike-Freiberga V, Abubakar I, Dakkak H, Devakumar D, Johnsson A, Karabey S, Labonté R, Legido-Quigley H, Lloyd-Sherlock P, Olufadewa II, Ray HC, Redlener I, Redlener K, Serageldin I, Lima NT, Viana V, Zappone K, Huynh UK, Schlosberg N, Sun H, Karadag O. “Safeguarding people living in vulnerable conditions in the COVID-19 era through universal health coverage and social protection.” The Lancet, 2022;7(1):e86-e92.

Bethune, S. “APA: U.S. Adults Report Highest Stress Level Since Early Days of the COVID-19 Pandemic” [Press release]. American Psychological Association. February 2, 2021.

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “Countering the “Lump of Labor” Fallacy: Two Lessons.” January 6, 2021.

The Public Theater of New York. “Lynn Nottage on the origins of SWEAT.” YouTube, August 2, 2018.

Nottage L. “Sweat.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, shorter 14th ed., W.W. Norton, 2021, pp. 1776–1839.

Schnurer, E. “The Rise of Zero-Sum Politics.” US News & World Report. September 14, 2017.

Sperling, G. “How to Refloat These Boats.” Washington Post. Sunday, December 18, 2005.

© 2024 Valasandra Hightower