Dallas — Lynn Nottage's Sweat, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is deeply anchored in the playwright's research and interviews of residents, business owners and unemployed steelworkers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Although set in 2000 and 2008 during the Bush era, New Yorker staff writer Michael Schuman called Sweat "maybe the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era: a tough yet empathetic portrait of the America that came undone."
Sweat director Tim Bond heads the University of Washington's Professional Actor Training Program, and has a long association with Nottage and her work. TheaterJones asked Bond about the DTC production, and what the play tells us about America's current political climate, wherein we've begun 2019 with the longest government shutdown in our history.
The DTC production features Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company members Sally Nystuen Vahle, Liz Mikel, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez and Ace Anderson; as well as Jon Shaver, Barbra Wengerd, Kenajuan Bentley, Kyle Igneczi and Tyrees Allen.
FYI: Dallas Theater Center is currently offering all federal employees impacted by the government shutdown two tickets to our production of Sweat, onstage at the Kalita Humphreys Theater today through Feb. 10.
TheaterJones: What is at the heart of Sweat; what gives the play its dramatic intensity?
Tim Bond: There's a tremendous amount of love in the play, and a sense of community among the workers in Reading. It's devastating to see the loss of community that the loss of work leads to. Why is this happening? That's where the social and political parts come in. The play shows how family and friends are torn apart by economic policies and the realities these people are facing in 2000 and 2008. Underneath all that is a question of work. What does society feel about their work in the world, and how do the workers feel personally? It seems like your work in society has no worth because of the policies that are happening. This brings up issues of self-esteem and shame, and then terrible things happen between people, as racial issues and violence are triggered. This (progression of events) has been the case since the very beginning of our human condition. Sweat links us to a larger human history that people have always experienced in these circumstances.
Do you agree that the work reflects "the Trump era"? What does that phrase mean to you?
For me, the Trump era is characterized by xenophobia, by fear triggered by “the other.” The current policies attack people different from the dominant culture, separating people based on issues of race, class ethnicity and nationality. Gender, too. Gender comes up many times in this play in the characters of Cynthia, an African American woman, and Tracy, a white woman of German descent, both strong, forceful women. They are best friends when the play begins, but the forces of division begin to chip away at that friendship, and their families fall apart, in turn. Their story is told with compassion for these people whose lives don't often see the footlights of the American stage. We see these underrepresented workers in a sympathetic light that gives us empathy for them as people.
Can you relate the trials of the characters in Sweat to the real-life experience of government workers asked to perform their duties without pay because of the extended government shutdown?
Any group of people hired to do a particular job, under the protection of a company or a school district or the United States government or any such organization has certain expectations. You feel you've been betrayed by that company or government when you are suddenly forced to give up your pay, your livelihood. You have to face day-to-day realities. Can you pay your bills or make your house payment? What happens with health issues? That's devastating, especially when it's being done for political expediency. Your lives and your jobs are being used as political footballs. [The continued government shutdown] chips away at the very fabric of worker security, at the hopes and dreams of American people. So much of what is said in the play is about exactly the same thing. People are not getting payed to do their jobs, but are asked to work for nothing. It's crazy. In Sweat, the workers are out on strike because they are asked to take a 50 percent pay cut. We're giving you a deal. We're not firing you; we're just cutting your pay in half, they're told. That's not a deal. That's exploitation. I think every person who sees the play will see the parallel to the plight of the government workers affected by the shutdown.
You've directed many works by Nottage; do you see essential common themes in Sweat?
She's telling stories of populations of people and individuals in various societies whose stories are usually unheard. She allows us into their dreams and hearts to make a deep connection that transcends the politics, and goes straight to a human visceral level. Her lines are dense with fact, but out of the mouth of
the actor, the ideas and stories come quite naturally. Her artistry is everywhere; the speech has a theatrical poetry to it.
Nottage not only brings the voice of working class and racially underrepresented groups to the stage, she is an African American woman playwright who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. In your experience, do female playwrights, of any color, get equal parity on American stages?
Historically, female playwrights absolutely have not had such parity. Things are improving, but females still do not have an equal share of productions. There is a growing movement and awareness of this, and there are more opportunities for women playwrights to find their way to the stage. Over my entire career, between 30 and 40 perfect of the plays I have directed have been written by women. I realize that speaks to my particular preferences and efforts, and I feel blessed in that regard.
Can you comment on your experience with the DTC cast and crew working at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
This is my first time working in Dallas and at the Kalita Humpreys Theatre. The design crews at DTC are top notch team players. So are the Dallas actors and the guest actors who joined us from New York and LA for this show. I've had a grand time working with this group. I was quickly welcomed into the community and they've all worked really hard; it's been a total lovefest. I've made my ritual peace with the theater ghosts. Hopefully, they will welcome you into a space, and invite you back. It's an older theater, so it comes with technical challenges, but I love the character of the building and the spirit of the place. We've had some odd things happen that never happened before. The theater gremlins were very active during yesterday's preview, but I'm an old theater guy and I hope my connection to the resident gremlins transcends anything merely technological. [Laughs, exits to witness Sunday matinee preview.]