My new favorite place to sit in the theater is the front row. My first inkling that this was my new favorite place to sit was at The Color Purple. My jaw was dropped during the entirety of the show as Cynthia Erivo transformed before our very eyes. This powerhouse of a performer was sitting just 3 feet from me for many of her solos. You could feel the emotions emanating from her body and her voice reverberated right off the goosebumps on my arms. It was an experience I will never forget.
Perched in the front row at Sweat was equally disarming but for very different reasons. We were practically bellied up to the very bar where most of the scenes took place. Sitting so up close and personal, we were privy to every flinch, clenched and coiled fist, pained wince, flash of hope, violent tendency and nascent expressions of resentment. This play starts at a low boil and continues in this fashion until the pot explodes in the final scene.
It was not a comfortable evening. It was painful, difficult, and frustrating to watch these people’s lives unravel as they endured the opposite of the American Dream. Living in a town mightily reliant on the local factory for jobs, it was their belief that if they paid their dues and logged their time they would do as well or better then their parents before them. When the folks in the air conditioned offices of the factory decide to cut jobs and wages, they simultaneously sever these people’s lifelines, dignity, and hope for the future.
After the fallout, one hardworking and humble resident emerges from the ashes to achieve his version of the American Dream as he nurses a man who’s life was shattered. When he is thanked for his service to this individual he replies “Taking care of people. It is what we have to do.” While the story we witnessed took place in Reading, Pennsylvania it easily could have been called Anywhere, USA. It shines a big, bright light on the palpable discontent of the working class in this country. It is a story that needed to be told and play that needs to be seen.
The words that the actors hurled at us and at one another were authored by Lynn Nottage. Ms. Nottage, a 2 time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, spent 2+ years visiting with people of Reading, PA. On how she chose Reading, PA she had this to say: “I became interested in what was happening on a larger scale, how poverty and economic stagnation was beginning to shift our American narrative. What I often do when I’m writing, if I can’t find that story, I go out and I hunt for it. That’s how I stumbled upon Reading, which, when I was beginning to cast my net for a small postindustrial city, was deemed the poorest city in America for its size, according to the Census. I ended up spending two-and-a-half years going back and forth, just listening to people, really being open.” This play is a reflection of what she learned.
To learn more about her time in Reading, PA, the timing of her play, and the creative process for writing Sweat please click here. In the meantime, if you’re looking for me in the theater in the future… I will be the one in the front row.