On Wednesday night I was privileged to attend the premiere of the Paramount’s new “Bold” Series of plays. This isn’t the usual family-friendly fare you expect to see at the larger theatre across the street. This is thoughtful theatre for grown-ups.
Sweat is a remarkable play that tells a story we haven’t often told in America. One about class. Not since the 1930s have Americans had a real awareness of themselves as working class, middle class, and Oligarchs. And the story it’s telling is how the working class was weaponized through class warfare to blame their peers instead of the owners that were outsourcing their jobs to low-wage workers in Mexico or their own community. It’s literally the lead up to today’s rise in white-supremacy and hate crimes.
Taking place in Reading Pennsylvania in 2000 and 2008 it traces the impact of NAFTA on the still-vibrant manufacturing in the area. But some of us went through this in the 1980s when Reagan’s notion of breaking Unions moved manufacturing from Northern unionized states to Southern states where people were willing to work for a fraction of the pay and benefits. This happened in the town I grew up in over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Two of three major manufacturers closed up shop and moved all their shops to Tennessee or farther south. And the people in my town reacted just like the characters in Sweat. It was kind of horrifying to watch.
It’s a play full of amazing performances. It’s almost impossible to call any of them out individually because the entire cast is so very strong as an ensemble. Even the actors in the quieter roles bring so much to the table that you hang on their every word. They’re all putting together the story of the tragedy of these people and this town.
Randy Steinmeyer plays Stan, the bartender at the local bar that services the workers from the local manufacturing plants. He used to be one of them, until he was injured and the plant no longer had use for him. He is the charming heart of the community, with a listening ear, caring heart, and advice for everyone. Trio of best friends Jessie (Tiffany Bedwell), Tracey (Linda Gillum) and Cynthia (Shariba Rivers) have been working at the plant together since they got out of high school, now in their late 40s, the sons of Linda and Cynthia are also now working alongside them. The boys, Jason (Gage Wallace) and Chris (Emmanuel K. Jackson) are also best friends. Each one of them embodies their character to perfection. And you can see the lifelong friendships fissuring as the events unfold.
A promotion for Cynthia brings her into management, which then locks out the workers and hires scabs, one of whom is the bar’s busboy Oscar (Jordan Anthony Arredondo). A sort of negative example is Brucie (Joshua L. Green), the Cynthia’s ex-husband and Chris’ dad, who lost his job years ago on another strike line and has fallen into drug use. But he still cares and he still turns up to offer his advice, which provides perspective. That’s the setup and I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t seen the play before.
It’s just splendid. It’s the sort of provocative and thoughtful theatre you usually have to go into town for, or to New York. But it’s right in downtown Aurora, where there’s plenty of parking and easy access. You should take advantage of this exceptional production and go at once.
And this is just the first production of the Bold series. You can look forward to Hand to God, Fun Home, and Bull to round out this season.
Sweat plays from now until April 24th. Tickets are available here.
Photography by Liz Lauren.