SALT LAKE CITY — For the women of “Sweat,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play which explores the plight of modern steel factory workers, there’s little room for indirectness.
“My character (Tracey) is very strong, and it's a nice reminder that makes you think, ‘Maybe I can shoot from the hip a little bit more,'” said Margot White, a New York actress playing the lead role in the Pioneer Theater Company’s production of “Sweat.” “She reminds me that I don't have to always say something that’s going to be liked or approved. It's sort of a gift to be able to live in that character for a couple weeks at least, without the fear of acceptance.”
Written by African-American playwright Lynn Nottage, “Sweat” takes a close look at communities in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 2000 and 2008, a time when many factories were shutting down, according to White. Set in a bar frequented by the play’s factory workers for the past 20 years, the play illustrates the social impact that recent changes, such as trade agreements and alternative energy, are having on today’s laborers.
Pioneer Theatre’s production of “Sweat” will run March 29-April 13 at the Simmons Memorial Theatre, located on the University of Utah’s campus
While the play sheds light on some of today’s unresolvable social issues, it is truly a play about people: the suffering they endure as a result of corporate decisions, the close-knit environments they inhabit and the relationships that make up their lives.
“I think the play can be looked at as a political statement, but really more than anything it's a play about relationships,” said Nafeesa Monroe, who plays Cynthia in the production. “And I think that it's a really interesting examination on how relationships can constrain, no matter how close you are with some people. Life may throw things at you that put friendships to the test.”
Beyond challenges of friendship and social class, Monroe’s character contends with issues of race. As an African-American woman in the Reading community, her challenges are often different than those of her coworkers. Monroe, who, like the character she plays, has African-American heritage, believes the play accurately portrays some of the racial challenges she’s experienced in her own life.
“I actually grew up in a Caucasian neighborhood,” she said. “Feeling like the other, feeling like you're being punished for wanting something better for your life, feeling like not everybody in your family is pulling the weight, having your friends question your ability to do things — all of those things I have experienced. I think Lynn (Nottage) has done a really good job of, through this one character, allowing people to get a little insight of what it's like to be a person of color in the United States — especially in a small town.”
In spite of the differences among those in the play's community, the collective challenge of recovering one’s identity, financial well-being and sense of value is shared by all.
“Tracy definitely goes through it — she goes through the wringer,” Margot White said about the play’s protagonist. “But she’s a unique character from my perspective because she's tough as nails, she's strong. She said what she means, she shoots from the hip and she expects the same in return.”
And, perhaps because of the play's Rust Belt setting, there’s no shortage of strong women in the script. The play's author studied the city of Reading for years.
“Cynthia is tough — she's ‘tough as hell,’ which is actually a quote from the play,” Monroe said about her character. “She is really loyal to her friends, but she's also an African-American woman in a town where not a lot of people of color are … getting the higher-end jobs.”
While the play delves into the stories of Cynthia and Tracey, it ultimately aims to portray the life of the community as a whole. As Monroe said, it is a play about the community rather than a play focused on any individual.
As for why Pioneer Theatre chose to run this production now? Timeliness, White said, is a factor.1 comment on this story
“I think you could say there's a pre- and post-Trump feeling amongst America — and that's not to say the play is pro or anti anything,” White explained. “(‘Sweat’) is just an acknowledgement that life in these communities, and the way we purchase and consume energy, is different. There's still a way to go … I don't mean to make it political. But I do think … the play can definitely be related to our current government and politics.”
If you go …
What: Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Sweat”
When: March 29-April 13, times vary
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East
How much: $32-$45