Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat brilliantly, humanely, and powerfully depicts what the playwright terms “spaces that are under-illuminated” — those spaces occupied by millions of working-class Americans whose lives are a daily struggle even if they have a job.
I saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, and of all the plays I’ve seen there since the early 2000s, it ranks high in my top ten. The final exchange of dialogue and, particularly, the last line, is one of the most powerful I’ve heard in an American play.
This month in McMinnville, Linfield College’s theater department tackles the play, led by guest director and producer Adleane Hunter, who has been doing theater in Southern California and elsewhere since the 1980s. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Nov. 7-9 and 14-16, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10. A series of special events, including an opening night talkback, accompanies the production.
I sat down with Hunter, who first visited Linfield a couple of years ago because her granddaughter is a student there. She’s familiar with Nottage, one of the best playwrights in American theater today. I asked her about that last line — and don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you.
“I was so moved by it, I actually felt manipulated, because I didn’t see it coming,” she laughed as we had coffee at the campus Starbucks. Unlike many playgoers, Hunter strives for as spoiler-free an experience as possible. She does not read reviews or even the program notes before the lights go down. Even so, Hunter says, she can usually chart a play’s trajectory early on.
Not with Sweat.
“I was drawn into this play in a way that I wasn’t projecting what was going to happen,” she said. “Often I’ll see plays and I can pretty much guess how it’s going to end, but I couldn’t with this play. I was very emotional. It’s so humanistic, it’s so profound. But it’s real, it’s organic.”
Sweat explores the world of eight characters of various ages, genders, and ethnicities whose lives are bound up with a factory in Reading, Pa. Nottage was drawn to Reading — literally so; she spent more than a year there doing research — because she saw in the 2010 Census that it had the highest share of citizens living in poverty in the nation. According to notes for the show compiled by OSF, Reading’s unemployment in May 2010 was 14.7 percent. By way of comparison, Yamhill County’s hovers around 4 percent. The writing is exquisite, both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Yet, despite the poetry and emotional content of the piece, it functions not only as art but also (it seems to me) as an act of journalism. Bearing witness to life in the United States.
The play shifts between two time periods. In 2008, two young people — one black, one white — recount an emotional encounter after their years spent in prison. Most of the action takes place in 2000 in a working-class bar run by Stan, who worked at the local factory until sidelined by an injury. As in another great American play, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, the bar is where the characters come after work (or if they don’t work) to drink, laugh, and fight. And it is where secrets come out.
The play explores the fault lines of race, ethnicity, and age, but these are only brushstrokes on a broader canvas that depicts early 21st-century American capitalism. Without preaching or being “political,” the play highlights how the lives of working people are subordinated to what Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest memorably called the Combine: an economic and social order that values people only for their ability and willingness to serve the machine.
In this blue-collar world drawn by Nottage, where lives are buffeted by phenomena such as outsourcing and automation, no one gets a pass. Characters remark matter-of-factly (and perhaps too briefly) on the complicity of the Democratic party and unions that are ostensibly supposed to champion their cause. Friends, family, and co-workers are pitted against each other and fall into despair. Those who can no longer work (or are replaced by cheap labor) are cast aside. “It’s fuckin’ humiliating,” says one character, told he will not be allowed even to clean out his locker after losing his job. The Combine grinds on.
Sweat marks the second production in a year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of Linfield’s theater program. To have Hunter preside over the project is of particular note. She said she came to theater arts late in life, by which she means her 20s. She was founding director and, for more than a decade, artistic director for the Intercultural Committee for the Performing Arts in Orange County in the early 1980s. With its stated mission of nontraditional and color-blind casting, Hunter’s nonprofit group was several years ahead of the Actors’ Equity Association, which launched the Non-Traditional Casting Project in 1986.
She was often asked why she wanted to do “black theater” in overwhelmingly white and legendarily conservative Orange County. After pointing out that it was (and still is) her home, she’d use the question to make a point. “I’d say, ‘Well you know, black theater isn’t just for black people, just like white theater isn’t just for white people.’ I go see a lot of stuff. It’s like, what are you saying to me? No, these are human experiences.”
Hunter has produced and/or directed the world and West Coast premieres of more than a dozen new plays, and has been widely recognized for her artistic work, receiving honors including the YMCA’s Women of Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Soroptimist Woman of Distinction Award, and the NAACP Citizen of Distinction Award. Her residency at Linfield is made possible by the Lacroute Initiative for Advancing the Liberal Arts at Linfield.
The creative team includes students Nathan Dillon, Sam Hannigan, Alexandria Hunter, Elise Martin, Robert Santos, and Nicole Tigner, with guest actors Isaiah Alexander, Edgar Lopez, and A.J. Saddler. The barroom set was designed by Professor Derek Lane. The production features costume design by Laurel Peterson, sound by Rob Vaughn, lighting by Liam Home, and makeup by Erika Glas. Clementine Dorsey is the stage manager.
For more information or for tickets, which range from $6 to $10, visit the website or contact the box office at 503-883-2292.
MASK MANIA IN NEWBERG: The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg this week hosts a world premiere. A Universal Feeling is a collaborative installation of masks depicting emotions. The work of more than 60 international artists will be featured in this show, organized by Portland mask artist Tony Fuemmeler, and he’ll be among those at the artists’ reception this Friday, from 5 to 8 p.m. in the center. As remarkable as this show looks, it is merely one of four mask-centric exhibitions that will close out the year at the Chehalem center. Also look for Reveal/Conceal, a showcase retrospective of Fuemmeler’s work; Guise: A Group Mask Exhibit, featuring work by Faerin Millington, Rachel Mulder, Kris Musser, and Nathan Tanner; and Zodiac Masks by Kike Mayer, a private collection, on loan to the center, of masks depicting the 12 astrological zodiac signs by Enrique “Kike” Mayer. I’m seeing the show this week and will have a full report later this month.
ARTS JOURNAL: Final performances of a stage show, even if they’re bound for the road elsewhere, tend to be emotional affairs, and that was very much the case last month when my wife and I saw the final Mother Road at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. OSF veteran Mark Murphey and the rest of the cast were obviously grateful and humbled by the standing ovation that erupted as the play ended. They also brought out the crew for a well-deserved curtain call. Also in the Bowmer, practically dead center, was the show’s director, former OSF artistic director Bill Rauch. He was sitting in the row in front of us just a few seats down, which afforded this theater fan a rare opportunity to occasionally glance over and watch the director watch his own production. An excellent play, closed out by one of those unforgettable theater moments. And by the way, special thanks this week to OSF’s Julie Cortez for chasing down some Sweat info from their 2015 production.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.