In Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Sweat, there are no clear lines drawn between conflicting sides. The performance follows the struggles of an intimate community in the factory town of Reading, P.A. over the course of eight years, from 2000 to 2008. Reading, at the time the play was written, was one of the poorest communities in the U.S. with a poverty rate of over 40 percent. Close friendships disintegrate as layoffs within the factory that employs most of the town create suspicion and resentment.
“I think it’s a study or examination in scarcity thinking and scarcity reality,” says PURE Theatre artistic director Sharon Graci. “What happens when there’s not enough to go around, and how do people turn? How do their affinities and loyalties shift when they are now under duress?” In struggling to understand what has happened to them, the characters begin to point fingers at one another. The situation is too close for them to realize that blame lies, not with themselves, but with the systems that have let them down.
“One of the things that is so powerful about Sweat is it really allows the audience to take a look at the human cost of what it means to not participate in the 1 percent,” says Graci in a reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement that initially inspired the play. Nottage, recognizing the significance of the socially and politically turbulent condition of the country, went out in search of the 99 percent and found them in Reading. She spent two years interviewing residents of the blue-collar town in a hunt for answers in the disillusionment of the American Dream. She wanted to give voice to the voiceless working classes that built this country.
In a testament to the power of empathy, Sweat drops audiences into the lives of a detached demographic. “The theater audience is not necessarily what we’d call working class,” says Graci. “These are hardworking people, and they deserve to be compensated fairly for the work that they do. How are we as a society going to answer for that? How are we ensuring that we’re taking care of the people who work hard everyday?” The play gives audiences the big picture the characters don’t see. Nottage turns a mirror to society and asks that we hold ourselves accountable. We must support each other across demographics.
Racial tensions are an especially destructive force in Sweat and serve as a primary catalyst for dissociation among the characters. “It’s what Dr. King spoke about toward the very end of his life as he was trying to plan The Poor People’s Campaign,” says Graci. “He realized that race is a distraction from the reality of economics and depression. I think that’s one of the things that Lynn Nottage is really putting out there.” Nottage urges us to find ways to coexist, to find ways to make our actions mutually beneficial as often as possible.
Graci says that PURE is thrilled to be presenting such an important performance. The group has been prepping for Sweat by trying to understand the character demographic in the same way Nottage did. They’ve exercised their empathic abilities by watching sociologically themed documentaries and listening to podcasts like NPR’s This American Life. “We’ve been trying to understand how a mythology is created around the concept of ‘Other.’ We spend a lot of time building the minds of these characters because that’s what actors do. They build a whole life for another human being and then they allow that mind to manifest itself on stage. And they do everything humanly possible to get out of the way, to not let their personal belief system influence the actions and the choices of the characters.”
Graci, who has appeared in titles like Homeland and One Tree Hill, channels her experience as a professional actor into her direction. She tries to give her team room to develop these characters in a way that makes sense for them. “I don’t say very much about choices the actors make early in the process. Actors need time to find it, to allow it to manifest. It’s a process, and I think I have a lot of patience for that process because of my acting background. I am not interested in having every answer. It’s really collaborative.” This creative freedom gives the actors the room they need to delve into the psychology of their characters, lending to the authenticity of the performance.
Sweat will be performed at Dock Street Theatre, a temporary home for PURE before they move to a permanent location on Cannon Street, as part of the MOJA Arts Festival.