Theatre review - Sweat

In 2011, Reading, Pennsylvania, was named one of the poorest cities in the US. Lynn Nottage spent time with different members of the community and discovered a city fractured by racial tensions and the collapse of industry. This terrific Pulitzer Prize-winning play, first produced in 2016, is the result of her research.

Set during two pivotal moments in America’s recent history, Sweat is astonishingly prescient. The drama is framed by two parole interviews Evan (Sule Rimi) conducts with Jason (Patrick Gibson) and Chris (Osy Ikhile) in 2008. They have been in prison for an act of violence that is gradually revealed to us.

The main action opens in 2000, just as George W. Bush is about to be elected. Cynthia (Clare Perkins), Jessie (Leanne Best) and Tracey (Martha Plimpton) have been friends for years. They work in a steel factory and hang out in the local bar run by Stan (Stuart McQuarrie).

The cracks begin to show when Cynthia, an African American, is promoted over Tracey to become their supervisor. It’s not long before she has to ask everyone to accept a wage cut in order to save their jobs.

Inevitably, there are those, like Oscar (Sebastian Viveros), Stan’s hardworking assistant, who are willing to accept less pay. They, rather than the factory owners, become the scapegoats, intensifying racial mistrust.

By exploring the disaffection of factory workers, who lose their jobs and their dignity, Nottage illuminates the alienation of the working-class in America today and the despair that prompted so many to vote for Trump.

It’s skilfully staged by Lynette Linton, sensitively performed by the ensemble and the bar is beautifully realised by designer Frankie Bradshaw. The parallels with the UK’s current tensions are clear; Sweat is a powerful play for our times.

Donmar Warehouse
Running until 26 January