I am a far cry from a theater critic and I won’t pretend to be one here, but I was moved profoundly by Lynn Nottage’s play, Sweat, that the Public Theater so graciously performed here in Reading at the Miller Center recently.
The story is simple enough set in Reading: it revolves around a cast of lower middle class people whose lives are adversely impacted by a steel plant closing where most of them work. Most of the play’s scenes are in a bar.
This is a gross over simplification of such a powerful play, whose characters are so vivid and real and with themes that define a divided nation brilliantly. It’s truly remarkable that this play’s early genesis began in 2011 when Ms. Nottage started coming to Reading and has so aptly set the stage for a firestorm election that the country has just experienced.
As for Reading, this play hits the mark on where the city has been and where it is now. I was struck early on in the play with its treatment of Oscar, a young Latino from Colombia, who is mostly ignored by the other characters in the play, but becomes a central figure in the drama. This city has always grappled with its Latino population that is largely ignored and blamed for the city’s decay.
When I arrived in Reading 20 years ago, you would hear talk, “Reading’s making a comeback.” That talk has all but died. The talk of how great downtown used to be still lingers. The departure of industry from the city has left it hollowed out and the city’s only recourse is to reinvent itself in a way that Lancaster, Bethlehem, and Phoenixville have done.
The play could have been set in many cities across the country and as it makes its way onto Broadway, I think it’s vitality to the current political conversation is relevant now more than ever. One of the key takeaways for me from Sweat is how this group of characters turns its anger upon each other when the source of their anger is the departure of the steel plant.
The play really captures the country’s misdirected divisiveness of ‘us vs. them’ and makes me consider that we can’t be confused about each other being the enemy, regardless of which side of the political spectrum we fall, and that we need rational, civil dialogue with each other as extremely difficult as this proves to be.
It is a play of our time and like any great piece of art is for me consciousness altering.