Blood, “Sweat” and tears: The Guthrie Theater’s take on the human cost of the economy

“Nostalgia is a disease…there’s nothing but mildew in these cracks.”

While keeping his patrons’ glasses full, an elderly and disabled bar manager named Stan grieves for the way his community has changed. Folks come to this spot to unwind after a hard day’s work at the local steel factory. Stan and an employee named Oscar offer therapeutic ears and helping hands for the workers whose once stable livelihoods are at risk. By the end of our time witnessing this story play out on the Guthrie Theater stage, Stan and Oscar’s emotional labor comes down upon them in a moment of violent rage, fracturing these human connections for years to come.

Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat is a story about economic changes that ripple through the lives and dreams of everyday working people struggling to find solidarity and agency underneath the scars of sacrifice. Two years of interviewing residents from Reading, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest towns in the United States, culminated in the 2015 play. Sweat won Nottage a second Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2017. It’s been praised for bringing working-class depictions usually hidden in the background to the center of the narrative. Consider this article an addition to the heap of praises for Nottage, the Guthrie Theater, and the many cast and crew that labored to produce this show and are engaging in necessary conversations with the Twin Cities community. Although it’s set in the Rust Belt, the characters evoke Midwestern work ethics and identities. The workers’ stories are told in a way that doesn’t seek to exploit their pain and sacrifice or turn them into heroes, but draws connections between working conditions and the human cost of the economy, a cost that continues to grow as the COVID-19 pandemic transforms us and our livelihoods.

Here is the play’s synopsis:

In 2008, two young men, Chris and Jason, meet with their parole officer in Reading, Pennsylvania. They’ve recently been released from prison, and running into each other deeply affects them. The play then jumps back to January 2000 when three friends are gathered at the local bar in a well-worn ritual to celebrate a birthday. Jessie, Cynthia and Tracey work at Olstead’s metal tubing factory — good jobs with a long history in Reading. Stan, the bartender, knows everyone from his days at the factory before he suffered an on-the-job injury. Keeping the tradition going, Cynthia and Tracey’s sons, Chris and Jason, also work at the factory, but they each have different dreams for their futures. 

As the economy changes and NAFTA takes its toll, things are no longer as stable as they once were. Local companies have layoffs and lockouts, and rumors fly about changes at Olstead’s. But Reading is a union town, and everyone has faith in the union’s strength. Months later, after Cynthia is promoted to warehouse supervisor, cracks form in decades-old friendships and the rumors prove to be true. The events that follow test years of loyalty, and a moment of violence comes at a terrible price.

One of the actors, Ansa Akyea, who is also a director, father, and creative, had a conversation with me about the play, his work, and how journalism and theater are essential to democracy. In the play, he plays Bruce, a textile mill worker who’s been walking the picket line for over 90 weeks after being locked out. Bruce, whose once militant spirit has been worn down, struggles with addiction that harms him and his family. Akyea said that labor historian William Jones and a window washer with SEIU Local 26 came to talk with the cast and crew. Akyea is a member of Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA Twin Cities. The following interview was edited for clarity. 

Other shows Akyea has also been a part of at the Guthrie include A Christmas Carol, Cyrano de Bergerac, Harvey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Clybourne Park, and The Winter’s Tale.

Q: Why should people go see Sweat?

A: You want to see Sweat because you want to see human beings dealing with conflict. And whether we want to admit it or not, we are all carrying stuff. And we might not see it, right when we meet, but there’s a journey in your lived experience that I can benefit from, or I can understand, or I can give some grace to. And it’s that kind of connection that play is really about. How we’re all connected and how those things can get pulled apart.

Q: Is that why you wanted to be a part of it?

A: I think the privilege that I had was to really think about why I would want to tell the story now. Why would I want to put that burden in my body, right? In the middle of a pandemic, a looming recession, BLM…doesn’t matter. There’s so much going on in the world. The play really reflects the Twin Cities. There are issues that we’re only now able to start having conversations around, and hopefully that can bring the catalyst for real change. Your policy doesn’t have to look like legislation, sometimes it looks like involvement and engagement. I think Zoom introduced a distance, right? Physically… I am just leaning into technology as opposed to listening to you and taking all this environment in. So my senses have been a little bit dulled. I think being in the theater is a good exercise and reminding my body that it’s okay to have all the feelings.

Q: Tell me about the character you play.

A: Brucey is part of a generation of workers. His father picked cotton and then he packed his razor and a Bible and headed north. Then he also worked his way up into the union. That is normal, [Bruce] comes from that line. Everything else in terms of like, educational attainment, school, is maybe not such a high priority. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care, but it’s not really the way that he was raised to make an income for his family to survive. So Brucey comes to this point where he’s been on strike for 93 weeks, and there’s not been a lot of movement. And he’s also been using. It’s heroin, so it manifests in the cycle of casual, to you need it, to now you’re addicted. Throughout the play, you kind of see Bruce’s journey with that, and the effects it has with his wife. He’s estranged from his son and his friends. And then you also see what it means in terms of the labor movement. We haven’t built the systems to support people when they fall through the cracks.

Q: Yeah, if the media was more focused on working class issues, we would’ve probably figured it out earlier that the opioid crisis was happening. Things could have been different. 

A: We have an obsession with punitive judgments. Like you’re doing something wrong, so you deserve to be where you are. And I think there’s something wrong generationally for us. We have to undo that part of that thinking. 

Q: Tell me about the conversations with a labor historian and a window washer with SEIU.

A: It was great to listen about the reality of what does it mean when you go on strike. The reality of what it means when you might be competing with your, you know, fellow brother or sister for a raise. How we as a public benefit from workers being safe, being paid well. I think if the habit is that we can care more and support each other more, I think that’s what the conversations are about. How do we bring people to understand, right? Because no one wants to get lectured at this point. So how do you connect with people? It takes time.

Q: I think there was a playwright, I don’t remember how to say his name. John Guare? He was a playwright here. And he said, “especially when situations are weird and crazy, we need artists to kind of figure it out”. You’ve mentioned the context of the times we’re living in. When they write about this play, people are like, oh, this is the play that shows you who Trump voters are, you understand and you begin to, you know, think of that. I’m wondering if doing this play has helped you see other people’s viewpoints a little bit differently?

A: I will say it has reinforced to me that Trump is just a symptom of something that was always there. If you look at any of those communities in West Virginia, wherever he campaigned that he said he was going to make America great again…did your situation improve under his administration? Did he actually come back and face those people? And the answer is a resounding no. But all of that is just a symptom of something that is really, really broken in America. And the hope is that we know we’re better than that, we see it, we recognize that there’s income inequality. It’s about what you can do. It’s not about visualizing a future or imagined environment. It’s happening right now. Yeah, day to day. So I think people are much more turned off by politics, because if it’s not about an action, then it’s not real. Which is why I think people protest, and whatever aisle you’re on, people are so vocal and so entrenched because they’re scared. The only way we’re gonna get out of this is if we make some really hard decisions together. And that means you have to listen to each other. And you have to let go of some things. And you have to admit some things. And that’s not the kind of nation building that we’ve been raised on.

Q: Lynn Nottage won two Pulitzer Prizes for two of her plays. I’m really excited I get to write about it. As a journalist, I’ve had to explore my own path. I went to J-school and learned how news is produced. And I was like, I don’t know if I like it this way. But I’m gonna just do it my own way. Thankfully, I have this job now where I get to kind of decide what I want to write about. And not many people get to do that as soon as they graduate. So I’m really excited that the Guthrie is doing something that’s informed by journalism and the work of listening to people and really trying to understand why things are the way they are, rather than just entertainment. We’re trying to have conversations and I think that’s really important.

A: You cannot have a functioning democracy without a free press. You cannot have entertainment without reality, because people are coming to those spaces wanting and seeking. That’s what the Greek citizens, what Shakespeare did. That’s why, you know, Arthur Miller did it so well, because they were informed by the press and what was going on. It seems basic, but I’ve got to read a play. And that’s in the play as well, right? Like, my character literally did not go to school, or he talks about it in derogatory ways. And so you see, also what happens, where do you get your information from? You need a functioning and free press.

Q: I think that’s a good point, too. Art has a role in democracy as well, because it reflects people’s voices. And I think I’ve been thinking a lot about how art is work, but we don’t seem to view it as work. We want to make sure artists are paid for the work that they do, and the labor that they provide. But oftentimes, I think we think like, oh, it’s just a hobby, it’s not a real way to make a living. Did you always want to be an actor growing up?

A: No, I come from a family of immigrants. And so I think education, a lawyer, a doctor, an architect, an engineer, right? My mother’s a teacher. My father was with the Foreign Service so he dealt with policy around access for children and immunization and worked for UNICEF. So the arts was a calling. When I got to college, and I met my mentor, and I realized that the written word can be lifted and manifests. That totally blew my mind. I don’t care whether you like radio or film, theater has it all. And then you have an audience, you have people who are in real time sitting there, listening. When’s the last time you sat in a space that’s not a movie theater where people are all breathing together, laughing together? Total strangers? Yeah. Having the same emotional feast at the same time. It’s mind boggling. And then, you know, we mess it up by commercializing it. How can we make it more consumable, as opposed to an exercise in vulnerability.

Q: Has this play changed you, if so how?

A: Bruce in particular has given me a real window into what addiction looks like, and how it ripples through your family, friends, work…we all are dealing with a level of something that we crave, right? And so it’s just really made me honest about how I deal with things that I really want. And things that I don’t want. So I think that’s been the gift for me about doing this play, really dealing with family and addiction and love.

Q: I’ve been doing this training on ambiguous loss and how it shows up and how we cope with trauma and build resilience. It’s the idea that a situation can happen that doesn’t have a resolution, and it’s not ending, and it’s ongoing. During the pandemic, I’ve been noticing a lot more whether like, you’re losing someone you love, or you’re losing a job, or a business, it’s all around us, and it shows up in our work. You have this amazing opportunity to communicate to the rest of your community that this is what we can be talking about, how things affect us and how we cope. So I just want to thank you for being part of this.

A: I love that point. I just want to add, when we don’t all look alike…it impacts us differently, right. And so how do we pay attention to things that are different from us, as opposed to saying, “well, it’s not me, so I shouldn’t.” Yeah, I was raised not to engage. And I think to your point, there’s so much repression that happens in people. And this play breaks that open in many ways. You cannot hold all that. We’re not built that way.           

Sweat will be showing until August 21st. On Saturdays, August 13 and 20 at 1 pm, there will be a post-show discussion with Kera Peterson, President of the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, second Vice President of the Minnesota State Council of Machinists and Minnesota AFL-CIO board member.

Amie Stager is the Associate Editor for Workday Magazine.

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