Monday, April 10, 2017

Broadway Theater Review: Sweat

Sweat has just won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 

By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Studio 54

By Lauren Yarger
An explanation for why Donald Trump was elected? That's what Sweat is being called by many critics. My take on this play is quite different, however, which just proves what a powerful pen playwright Lynn Nottage wields.

Nottage, who won a Pultizer Prize for Ruined, her hauntingly lyrical play about women trapped in the horrors of war in the Congo, turns her efforts and character development in Sweat, marking her Broadway debut, to working class Americans in economically depressed Reading, PA. Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey (who also collaborated with Nottage on Ruined) went to Pennsylvania and interviewed hundreds of real-life people for inspiration for the story, which follows a group of friends who have grown up and worked together on the floor of a factory, whose jobs are now threatened by government regulations and the transfer of jobs to Mexico.

We immediately know something has gone terribly wrong as the opening scene shows us Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis) in separate meetings with their parole officer, Evan (Lance Coadie Williams). Once friends, the men are estranged with raw pain still visible, with African-American Chris turning to religion and Jason sporting White supremacist tattoos on his face.

We travel back in time (the play takes place between 2000 and 2008, with Jeff Sugg's design projecting dates onto the set) to discover that their mothers also were friends before Chris's mom, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), was chosen for a management position over Jason mother, Tracey (Johanna Day). 

The relationships play out in a bar (designed by John Lee Beatty) where Cynthia and Tracey meet to celebrate birthdays with their other friend, Jessie (Alison Wright), who is wasted, trying to get over her ex. They are tended to by the bar keep, Stan (James Colby), who also had worked at the factory before an injury left him with a limp (he and Tracey also shared sparks in a one-nighter that we get the impression he wouldn't mind re-igniting). His minimum-wage employee, Oscar (Carlo Albán), an immigrant from Colombia, dreams of a better life and a union job at the factory.

Interacting with the group are Chris's dad, Bruce (John Earl Jelks), who has turned to drugs after being locked out of his plant, but who keeps showing up in the boy’s life despite being kicked out by Cynthia. We see the relationships between friends deteriorate as economic realities reveal racial tensions and a general lack of hope. The politics during the end of President George W. Bush's presidency and that of President Barack Obama are subtle reminders in the background of the dialogue, but not driving forces in the plot of the play.
Instead of seeing this group of people as victims, I saw them as the result of their own poor choices. They have a sense of entitlement -- and when they don't get what they want, they make poor choices.

  • ·         Tracey lets people know the only reason Cynthia got the promotion over her is because she is black, not allowing that her long-time friend might have been more skilled. Then she blames Cynthia when she refuses to take a severance deal and chooses instead to be locked out of the plant. Then she further refuses guilt-ridden Tracey's offers of help. Later, Cynthia chooses drugs over helping her son.

  • ·         The friends think Oscar's goal of a better life is fine -- until it means that he might get a union position and equal pay -- or worse, take a scab position when they go on strike.

  • ·         People turn to drugs and alcohol to dull their pain.

  • ·         Jason and Chris choose to unleash their anger in a senseless act of violence.

There definitely is a lot more going on here than a bunch of bad politics and workers losing jobs that are being shipped overseas. Nottage's gift is for developing characters that are fully developed, flawed and human, but still likable. It is a skill that aids her in storytelling, as well. The fact that people can see the message of the action so differently is a testament to her storytelling ability. She doesn't force an agenda down the throat of an audience, but allows them to be moved according to their sensibilities.  Stan comments that he isn't going to vote in the upcoming presidential election because "no matter what lever I pull it will lead to disappointment." Who hasn't felt that over the past decade?

The conclusion of the play, for example, left me shaking my head. I didn't expect it and found myself questioning the resolution. I also had to admit that these multi-dimensional characters often hadn't acted as I had expected, so maybe I need to go a little deeper to understand motivations. Human emotions aren't easily labeled and sorted into files.

And that is real lesson of Sweat: sometimes community exacts a high price and drives people to desperate acts. We aren't always going to agree on what is the best course of action-- for some, that included electing Donald Trump president – something many others can’t understand. But we have to find some way to respect, understand and accept each other. 

"Most folks think it’s the guilt or rage that destroys us in the end, but I know from experience that it’s shame that eats us away until we disappear, " Evan counsels his charges. "You put in your time. But look here, we been talking, and we can keep talking, but, whatcha gonna do about where you’re at right now? You hear me?"

It's a difficult lesson, lovingly written.
Sweat plays at Studio 54, 252 West 54th St., NYC.

-- Strong Language (some graphic sexually)
-- Derogatory term for women
-- God's name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York. Shifting from reviewing to producing, Yarger owns Gracewell Productions, which produced the Table Reading Series at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT. She trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run. She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She wrote reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She was a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice president and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (producer of the annual awards ceremony) and a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, serving as Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter. Yarger was a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2022 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women or people of a certain race are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide, or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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