Stage Door Review 2020
Friday, January 17, 2020
by Lynn Nottage, directed by David Storch
Canadian Stage & Studio 180, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
January 16-February 2, 2020
Jessie: ”I got caught in a riptide and never made it back to shore”
Canadian Stage and Studio 180 have combined forces to produce the Toronto premiere of Sweat by Lynn Nottage. Nottage’s play, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, is based on a series of interviews Nottage held in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 2011 when Reading was ranked as the poorest city in America with a poverty rate of 40% due to the closure of steel mills.
Set in a unnamed rust-belt town in 2000 and 2008, Sweat details how tightly work, no matter of what kind, gives people a sense of identity and worth. When this is lost Nottage shows that people look for someone to blame, with notions of racial or nationalist superiority providing the sense of sense of identity and worth that work once did. While Sweat can at times seem programmatic, Nottage creates a portrait of the concatenation of factors that already in 2000 led to the huge ideological divide in the US that politicians would later exploit.
Nottage begins the two acts of the play with scenes set in 2008 of the interviews of two young men with their parole officer. Both twentysomething, the White Jason (Timothy Dowler-Coltman) and the Black Chris (Christopher Allen) have been released from prison for committing an unspecified crime. Patient Black parole officer Evan (Maurice Dean Wint) can’t get anything but monosyllables from the enraged Jason, who has recently had his face tattooed with a swastika between his eyebrows, “SKIN” over one eyebrow and “HEAD” over the other. Chris on the other hand is well-spoken and has found religion a comfort in adjusting to life outside.
Thus, Nottage initially frames her portrait as a mystery. What crime did the two men commit? Why is it such a shock for them when they see each other again outside? Nottage may think she has cast her story as a mystery but, rather, it is an artificial ploy in an otherwise realistic play. The essence of Sweat is not about Jason and Chris and what they may have done, but about the youths’ mothers, the White woman Tracey (Kelli Fox) and the Black woman Cynthia (Ordena Stephens-Thompson).
After the scenes in 2008 time slips back to 2000 and we find that Tracey and Cynthia are happily hanging out together after work at a tubing factory at a bar run by Stan (Ron Lea), a former tubing factory employee, recovering from a work-related injury. Tracey and Cynthia’s mutual friend from work is Jessie (Allegra Fulton), who frequently drinks herself into oblivion.
The nucleus of the story involves a plan by factory management to promote one the floor workers to the rank of manager. Cynthia is excited by the prospect and has to convince Tracey and Jessie to put their names in to be considered. The problem comes when Cynthia is chosen. While Cynthia thinks this is a victory because someone with actual floor experience will be able to affect policy, Tracey, in particular, feels that Cynthia is no longer one of “us” but has become one of “them”.
In a signal scene between Tracey and Stan’s busboy Latino Oscar (Jhonattan Ardila) we hear Tracey, who has been best friends with Cynthia for almost 30 years, claim that Cynthia got the job because she is Black. Worse, Tracey asks Oscar where he is from. When he answers that he was born in Pennsylvania, Tracey asks the question that children of immigrants find especially insulting, “Where are you really from?” Nottage shows here that Tracey, whom we had thought open and tolerant, easily retreats to racists attitudes when threatened.
Oscar’s family is from Columbia, not Mexico as Tracey had assumed, and he has information he thinks Tracey should know. Handbills in Spanish have appeared seeking to hire people for a whole range of jobs at the factory even though, officially, the factory is not hiring. While Tracey dismisses Oscar’s handbill as rubbish, the information feeds the general fear among the factory workers that because of NAFTA, a trade agreement they don’t understand, factory management could decide to move jobs from the US to Mexico where labour costs are cheaper. When the factory finally locks out the workers and hires Latinos to replace them, including Oscar, Cynthia finds herself in a no-win situation, unable to give her friends and son who used to work at the factory any positive assurances and unwilling to protest management’s position by quitting her job.
Canadian Stage and Studio 180 have assembled a flawless ensemble cast for Sweat. Ordena Stephens-Thompson perfectly embodies the forward-thinking, spunky Cynthia who clearly has more spirit than her other coworkers. Cynthia jumps at the chance to better her lot by applying for a management job to be the first in her family ever to move up from the floor. Stephens-Thompson also clear articulates the pain Cynthia feels in begging her friends and her own son to accept the insulting renegotiated contract that management has offered the locked-out workers.
Kelli Fox creates a chilling portrait of the White Americans who, when faced with the success of people of colour retreat to notions of racial superiority. In Tracey’s conversation with Oscar she claims she has more right to a job than he does because he is the son of recent immigrants whereas her ancestors immigrated to the US way back in the 1920s. This would be comic except that we know even today that rational arguments have so little sway with bigots. In the course of the action, Fox carefully changes our view of Tracey from one of the funniest and liveliest characters to one of his most frightening and vicious.
Nottage makes Stan the bartender into a stereotypical dispenser of sage advice and the only voice of rationality, aside from Maurice Dean Wint’s calm parole officer. Although Nottage uses Stan rather too often for the didactic purpose of stating the objective view of emotional situations, Ron Lea does his best to make Stan a character with his own quirks rather than merely a symbolic figure.
Christopher Allen and Timothy Dowler-Coltman are well-cast as friends Chris and Jason who hold totally opposing world views. Allen and Dowler-Coltman demonstrate that well before the unknown crime they commit Chris had aspirations to better himself and leave a blue-collar life behind, whereas Jason’s outlook and seemingly his mental capacity can see nothing else in his life beyond factory work. The two actors also show that the 2008 selves of Chris and Jason have become more extreme versions of what they were in 2000. With no means of physical escape from town, Chris has made a spiritual escape. Jason in the same defeated position as his mother has retreated like her into notions of White nationalism to give himself a sense of superiority.
Other fine work comes from Allegra Fulton as Jessie, who in narrating the hopes she had in the past realizes that she is outlining her failures in the present. Peter N. Bailey gives us a painful picture of Cynthia’s drug-addicted husband Brucie, who may love his wife and son and may try repeatedly to kick his habit but is mired in self-pity and depression from being out of work. We know this shambles of a human being will never be able to pull himself together.
The show is played out on Ken MacKenzie’s superb, minutely detailed re-creation of a fully-stocked pub bar. The realism of the bar is deliberately undercut by the I-beams that cross the ceiling above it in reference to the factory where Stan’s patrons work. They may go to the bar to forget work, but, as Nottage shows, the bar eventually becomes as toxic an environment as the factory. MacKenzie allows us ample view of the actual walls of the Baillie Theatre where the play is staged which was an industrial space (the pump room for Consumers Gas) until 1955.
David Storch carefully shapes the action so that the tension reaches a natural breaking point in act two. He also handles the beautifully written final scene with just the right combination of sadness and rebuke.
Storch uses Cameron Davis’s projections of archival film footage to recall memories of the play’s two time periods. At one point Storch shifts from 2000 to 2008 by having Davis project a montage of images from every intervening year. Strangely enough, these images do not have the effect today that they might have had in 2015 when the play premiered. The sight of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, figures once the butt of so much mockery, now seem oddly benign compared to the vile leaders we have in their positions today. Davis’s images evoke a sense of nostalgia for the early 2000s which is just what they should not do since Nottage’s play sees in that period the immediate source of America’s present ills. Nottage even has Stan state outright that “Nostalgia is a disease”, mostly because people who oppose change like to remember the past as a better time than the present.
Since Stage Door also covers theatre outside of Toronto it should be mentioned that Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton, the “Steel Capital of Canada”, is also mounting a production of Sweat that opens January 31 and runs to February 15. The coincidence to two different productions both with starry all-Canadian casts gives Ontarians the distinct luxury of seeing both to compare and contrast how they portray the nuances of Nottage’s important play. I regret very much that I will not be able to take advantage of this circumstance, but you will find that Nottage’s play is so rich in elucidating the centrality of work to identity that there may be more meaning to wring out of Sweat than only one production can do.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Cynthia, Ron Lea as Stan and Kelli Fox as Tracey; Kelli Fox as Tracey, Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Cynthia, Ron Lea as Stan and Allegra Fulton as Jessie; Christopher Allen as Chris, Timothy Dowler-Coltman as Jason, Jhonattan Ardila as Oscar and Peter N. Bailey as Brucie; Jhonattan Ardila as Oscar, Kelli Fox as Tracey, Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Cynthia, Christopher Allen as Chris, Ron Lea, as Stan and Allegra Fulton as Jessie. © 2020 John Lauener.
For tickets, visit www.canadianstage.com.