Riverwalk Theatre’s ‘Sweat’ examines race in post-industrial America

(Left to right) Connor Kelly, Scott Pohl, Madeline Nash, Edward Heldt, Rose Jangmi Cooper, and Lekeathon Wilson in "Sweat."

Dennis Burck/Lansing City Pulse/Sept. 24, 2019

From life inside of a manufacturing plant to a changing world outside it, “Sweat” will flow like a historical account of troubled workers and their bar conversations before and during the Great Recession.

The play won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 and was dubbed by The New Yorker as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era.”

Riverwalk employs a cast of eight, directed by George Popovich, to tackle the production.

Taking place at a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, between 2000 and 2008, the cast emulates dive bar regulars from the city on decline. According to census data, Reading was named the poorest city in America with a population of over 65,000 people in 2011.

Popovich visited Reading over the summer to get a feel for the subject matter.

“I went to the town and saw what the people were about,” he said. “In a sense you shouldn’t feel pity for these characters. When I went to Reading everyone was happy but the extraordinary circumstances and overwhelming odds change that.”

The characters are complicated and the villain is the mill, he added.

“Theatrically, it reminds me of ‘Death of a Salesman.’ There was a controversy at the time that Willy Loman couldn’t be a tragic hero because he was a low person. What Miller said was tragedy can occur to anybody in an attempt to hold onto human dignity in the face of overwhelming odds.”

These odds are often external pressure on Reading’s economy, which exponentially increases the character flaws of everyday people.

“This ties into the Middle America and Midwestern thing. There is a lot here for everyone: the erosion of the middle class, the opioid crisis. I don’t care who you are, a slice of this play will hit you somehow.” 

Actress Rose Cooper answered the call to play Cynthia, a plant worker.

“We knew this would be the kind of story about real people and everyday people who pull up their sleeves to work,” Cooper said.

The UAW strike brought the realities of the production close to home, she added.

“We had a lot of fun in rehearsal and putting on the clothes of these characters. But when the strike started, it didn’t make it somber. It made it more real.”

Cooper, as well as her character, endured some of the themes of the work like being promoted out of class.

“When you’re one of the working crew, you’re in the same shoes as them and doing the same work as them. To have an opportunity to go beyond and become something more than what you were is a double-edged sword,” Cooper said.

“You’ll get that step up. You’ll get the position raise, but then you become an outcast as you move up and your friends haven’t. How do you maintain that friendship? I can tell you it is a very uncomfortable situation in real life and the stage.” 

This will be the second Nottage play Popovich oversaw. He took on “Ruined,” a 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, at the Henry Ford College as director of theatre in 2013.

Shades of ‘Sweat’ were present in Popovich’s life during the start of the Great Recession as a member of a teacher’s union.

“That was when I really saw how the union worked,” Popovich said. “Our negotiators went in there and we knew we would take some hits. I watched them go in and they would come out white,” Popovich said. “I thought the whole country was going to go to hell quite honestly.”

The play was underwritten by Michigan State University’s “Our Daily Work, Our Daily Lives” program.

“A lot of people say ‘Sweat’ is a play about people they don’t write plays about,” Popovich said.

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