‘Sweat’, the award winning play, explores the factory shutdown in a small community, but it also fails to manufacture a compelling story.

Play by Lynn Nottage. January 14 – February 2, 2020 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street. https://www.canadianstage.com or 416-368-3110.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Believe me when I say that I wanted to like Sweat, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Sweat has a lot of the parts to make a good show. It explores the closure of a steel mill and its revertebrating impact on multi-generational families in a small working-class community. There are timely themes of industrial decline, economic downturn, and race politics. The show explores personal relationships against the backdrop of labour relations. The intersection of these ideas should be a reviewer’s dream, but the only reaction that the show can engineer out of me was boredom. 

We follow this triumvirate of blue-collar, long-time friends, Tracey (Kelli Fox), Cynthia (Ordena Stephens-Thompson), and Jessie (Allegra Fulton), who meet regularly at their favourite watering hole. Tracey is an opinionated white woman in her 40s and she has been working at the factory for twenty years, following her father and grandfather. Cynthia is a headstrong and ambitious black woman, who is also in her 40s and has been working at the factory for a long time. Cynthia’s recent promotion to management places her in a dilemma as her new duties require her to lay off her friends. In turn, Tracey’s rising jealousy, frustration, and racist attitudes put strain on their friendship. Jessie is also often drunk with her two best friends, but she is more neutral and quirky as she tries to prevent these relationships from going sour. We also follow Tracey’s son, Jason (Timothy Dowler-Coltman), and Cynthia’s son, Chris (Christopher Allen), as they navigate through their own personal choices which involve pursuing education, unionizing, crime, and drugs.

I wish the show spent less time hammering this point and talking about this devastating effect, and instead spent more time showing it.

Despite all of this, I felt the characterization and storyline to be flat and predictable. Scene after scene after scene, the characters sounded like a broken record as they repeated the same pleas and cries of how bad the factory closure was going to be for them. I wish the show spent less time hammering this point and talking about this devastating effect, and instead spent more time showing it. Finally, the scenes primarily took place in their local bar (aside from the occasional flashbacks) and this setting grew stale. Like a manufacturing belt at Olstead’s factory, my interest-level unfortunately also came to a halt by the intermission and the only thing that Sweat can produce was a yawn. 

I watched the Toronto premiere earlier this year co-presented by the Canadian Stage and Studio 180. This production though had other questionable creative decisions. Director David Storch uses video clip projections on the stage to serve as scene transitions and punctuation points, but they come off as pretentious, tacky, and amateurish. It also appears that the actors received a lot of notes to yell (and they yell a lot). It feels like the characters shout at the audience at the same level for 20 minutes, and its intended dramatic effect is lost.

As a person of colour who is active in his union, I feel worried that I am missing something. I sincerely appreciate the show’s representation of the experience of visible minorities. But the unremarkable plot and lack of character growth could not secure my interest. During these changing times with COVID-19, I feel that we all can especially relate to this show’s themes of anxiety of the unknown future and the struggle to survive (corporations, businesses, and leaders trying to figure out their next move, families and communities pushing to advance their quality of life or at least staying afloat, etc.). Sweat though really struggled to engage me, and I was hoping for at least more texture. 

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Patrick enjoys theatre and is an amateur writer in Toronto.

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