The theatre department presented the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Sweat” at the Dale Snow Theatre in the Fine Arts & Performing Center from Feb. 26 to March 3.
Written by Lynn Nottage, “Sweat” examines how working-class struggles in Reading, Pa., breed a larger conversation about race, economics, community, and friendship.
Main characters Chris, Jason, Tracey, Jessie and Cynthia all work at the steel mill, Olstead’s. Olstead’s is a pillar of Berks County, and positions are passed down through generations.
Despite the characters’ faith in the local industry, the company eventually lays employees off to renegotiate contracts for 60 percent pay cuts. Tensions rise among the group, causing two characters to threaten the fate of one of their own and unexpectedly become ex-convicts.
“Sweat takes place in a local bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, but it could have taken place in any small town in the United States that has seen the ravages of economic fallout and despair,” said director Susan P. O’Hearn.
Though viewers might question whether a cast of college students can accurately depict the burdens of dispensable and disgruntled employees in America’s workforce, it is evident by the first scene that ESU’s presentation of “Sweat” is an emotionally gripping experience.
The Dale Snow Theatre is a small space, but the cast and crew manage to achieve versatility within a few square feet.
The audience surrounds the stage’s perimeter. Blue and burnt yellow lights immediately draw the eye to every scene’s center, making viewers feel like silent participants rather than distant observers.
Two chairs and a table instantly transform a probation office into a living room on one half of the stage, and the other is reserved for a bar, the play’s central location.
A dartboard, shelves of name brand liquor and flickering Budweiser and Miller Lite signs make the tall glasses of beer seem all the more real. The theater’s upper balcony is also used as the outside of the bar, a creative and effective choice.
The scenes alternate between 2000 and 2008, a transition that is supported by appropriate props, such as corded phones, CRT televisions, and newscasts of former president George W. Bush.
Fortunately, the characters evoke the life that the set deserves. They drink, curse and smoke with a rawness that fights to overcome the weight of the world.
Cynthia, played by junior Deijah Faulkner, is the only African-American woman in “Sweat.” Her spirit is stern and unwavering, especially after she’s promoted to a management position at Olstead’s.
Despite pleas from her friends to leave the mill following layoffs, Cynthia stands firm.
“Someone had to be left standing to fight,” she says.
Tracey, played by junior Marti Goodfellow, isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Her personality is pleasantly spicy, and she bites through the dialogue, making her a worthy contender against Cynthia when tensions arise over layoffs.
Tracey also offers comedic relief. In one scene, she jokes that NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), the economic policy blamed for job loss, sounds like a laxative.
Senior Samuel Kashefska plays Stan, Berks County’s favorite bartender, confidant, and mediator. He was injured on the job, but he has enough experience at Oldstead’s to contribute to the other character’s evening conversations.
Stan’s bar is neutral territory for the characters, and his wisdom creates some of the play’s most profound moments.
“What are you holding onto? I think we forget we’re supposed to pick up and go when the world goes dry,” he says to Chris and Jason in response to the layoffs.
Brucie, played by senior Omar McGill (aka Peanut Butter), is the cast’s most charismatic character. McGill’s voice has an undeniable cadence, and he fully adopts his role as a drug addict with an incessant neck scratch.
“I studied my character by connecting Brucie’s life to my own experiences with men like him. I worked by myself a lot because Brucie is a really dark person,” said McGill.
Still, McGill was determined to explore Brucie’s multidimensionality. Behind the character’s addiction is an alluring personality that everyone loves.
While playing the role of Brucie was a challenge, the play only confirmed many well-known truths for McGill.
“I’m aware of everything that goes on with people in workplaces, as far as white privilege, ethnicity and how bosses look at and treat their employees,” he explained.
Junior Rashiek Lauren plays Cynthia and Brucie’s son, Chris. Hoping to attend college, Chris is the dreamer that audience members will root and weep for. His passion is never amiss and can be found in every facial expression and hand movement.
“I focused on men in the workforce, but also on those looking to get out of their typical everyday job,” said Lauren. “I had a lot of guidance from our director, Susan O’Hearn. She really gave me that push I needed to live the character wholeheartedly.”
Unlike McGill, Lauren experienced a shift in perspectives after acting in “Sweat.”
“[“Sweat”] showed me that no matter the time and effort you put into a company, you aren’t safe,” he said.
Jason, played by junior Joe Grahek, is Tracey’s son and one of the boldest characters. His anger is explosive, and even his profanity possess a strength that’s sure to perk up the audience’s ears.
“I’m 25, so I have a clear memory of the years the play takes place in,” said Grahek. “In preparing for the role, I remembered how a lot of people felt that their lives under Bush and then Obama weren’t getting any better. I thought of the frustration that the middle class had.”
Grahek also shared that Stanislavski’s Physiological Gestures, an acting exercise that requires actors to push against the wall as hard as they can for 10 minutes, helped him channel his frustration for his role.
On stage, Grahek used the Meisner Technique to pay close attention to the other actors and actresses, which allowed his character to respond instinctively.
“Frustration will continue in this country until America is the manufacturing giant it used to be, with the American dream actually attainable and affordable,” he said.
Senior Marcell McKenzie plays Evan, Chris and Jason’s probation officer. He only appears in a few scenes, but he manages to emerge as a memorable character with only a pen, paper and urine cup.
Jessie, played by sophomore Gabriella Williams, is the group’s drunk. Often sunken into a bar booth with her head wedged between her elbows, she occasionally leaves her empty beer glass to spar with the other characters.
However, she’s mainly overtaken with the grief of her husband’s death.
Lastly, sophomore Kori Zacarias made his debut as Oscar, a Colombian employee at Stan’s. Oscar decides to work at Olstead’s during the layoff strikes, which angers the other characters and eventually leads to the play’s surprising denouement.
Similar to most art forms, “Sweat” imitates life.
Reading, the fifth largest city in Pennsylvania, has become one of America’s poorest cities. The characters represent real-life residents who are struggling to survive in a town they once trusted with their future.
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