May 19, 2017

Sweat by Lynn Nottage is currently playing at Studio 54.

Broadway theater might be classified as entertainment by economists and urban planners, but sometimes it offers something a bit different. After all, one might expect to feel happy, uplifted, or some such positive vibe after being entertained, right? So if one is seeking that experience, Sweat may not be the perfect play to select. On the other hand, for anyone puzzled by the outcome of last year’s Presidential election, Sweat offers some valuable insight and a solid night of theater.

Sweat has a terrific ensemble cast of talented actors, an impressive turntable set, and it’s very well written. The play was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It will likely stand the test of time, much as the musical Hair still sheds light on its era. That said, sitting in the very building where, forty years ago, the likes of Jackie O, Andy Warhol and even young Donald Trump once danced the night away was mildly unsettling. It was Studio 54 after all that pioneered the then novel practice of vetting prospective clubgoers for…what exactly? A particular look? Celebrity? Wealth? Connections? It seemed odd back then, the idea that only some would be granted an opportunity to spend their money inside. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the outer boro, blue collar hoi pulloi who were typically denied entry.

That was in the late 1970’s, before the demolition of the middle class became unstoppable, before the elimination of organized labor as a political force, before the rise of Wall Street vulture culture, the 1%, and yuppies. Before greed was good and before there even was such a thing as the Rust Belt. It’s when the formerly discreet upper class came out of the closet and flaunted their wealth before the astonished masses.

Sweat looks at American life after junk bonds and free trade had replaced the ‘work hard, play by the rules, and you’ll be fine’ formula. It takes place in a declining Redding, PA that evokes The Deer Hunter, but there’s a different war going on in Sweat. In this time capsule, labor unions have already been defanged and increasing shareholder value at the expense of stable communities is well underway.

When the manufacturing company in the play moves in for the kill, the factory workers are defenseless. Offered a new contract that proposes a 50% wage cut for the same work, they go on strike. But scabs are recruited and hired, some of whom are recent immigrants, and battle lines are drawn. Not between labor and corporate, but between the workers themselves. Divide and rule has always worked like a charm for the ruling class and it still does, as we can see in Sweat. It takes no time at all for vicious racism to boil to the surface when hard times come to town, though the play suggests that it always lurked just below the surface.

Sitting in Studio 54 and watching Sweat, one realizes that things have simply played out as they have, and from where we are today it looks like checkmate. There’s no going back to the good old days. We lost, they won. We never felt the water heating up and then it was boiling. Sweat powerfully shows one particular battlefield and some of the casualties of a decades long war against the working class. Entertaining? Perhaps. Enlightening? Definitely.


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