The Black Rep’s ‘Sweat’ is more than just a season opener
The feeling of anticipation that comes with waiting in a theater for a show to start is one that can’t be replicated. After a year of virtual performances, sitting down and watching a performance in person feels almost sacred; the walk to Edison Theater was like a religious pilgrimage and the act of sitting in your seat waiting for the curtain speech was like a prayer. This is what it felt like to be back at a Black Rep show.
The Black Rep opened their 45th season with Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” directed by Black Rep founder Ron Himes. The show follows a group of people — some related, some not — as they navigate the interconnectedness of race and class in the midst of the 2008 recession. The characters must contend with less-than-ideal working conditions, the looming threat of job insecurity and work-place dynamics, but that’s not all.
The play begins with two separate but connected parole meetings featuring Chris (Brian McKinley) and Jason (Franklin Killian), the sons of Cynthia (Velma Austin) and Tracey (Ami Loui), whose relationship is a primary focus. From this first scene, we are then transported to the bar, where the show spends the majority of its time.
The local bar serves as a grounding place. The wooden bar with the beer on tap and the running theme of birthday celebrations with friends sitting around sticky tables with gum underneath them drives home the idea that the bar is a place to be connected with the people you care about. Within the world of “Sweat,” the bar is where family is, and nothing can seemingly break that bond. At the bar, there are no individuals; it’s a collective. The myriad of storylines all meet here, because this is where the heart of the show and the heart of the characters live.
As an audience member, I found comfort in this; it made the overarching conflict seem manageable and less daunting. Yes, the uncertainty was there — and augmented by the inclusion of news coverage from the 2008 recession — but it was confined to a space that felt accessible, especially as someone whose memory of this time in American history is made up of playground disputes. I found myself hyper-focusing on the characters themselves and their relationships. When they succeeded, I felt like I was succeeding, and when they failed, I took it to heart.
“Sweat” puts the role of the working-class individual under a microscope and asks us the question: What would you do if you had to fight to survive? How would you respond? The primary focus is on the journey and the aspects of the human condition that carry us to our final destination, whatever that may be. It’s an examination of what happens when people are desperate, how that changes people and what they do when they are changed.
After watching performances on Zoom or just not at all, “Sweat” comes at the perfect time. We’re adjusting to new realities and what it means to be an individual but also part of the collective. We’re thinking about what it means to be human and how we deal with uniquely human experiences—triumph, loss, disappointment. This season opener isn’t just the first show of The Black Rep’s season; it’s an example of how we make do with what we’re given and how we continue to make do.