Hot Buttons: OSF’s Sweat Examines the Interplay of Race and Economics in the Age of NAFTA
Typically, Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions allude to contemporary issues through costume and set design choices that attempt to cast the historical or “universal” struggles of humanity into a modern context. It’s latest production cuts straight to the chase.
Sweat, which opened on July 29, and will run through October 31, takes place at the turn of the millenia in a small town in Pennsylvania that is watching its factory jobs evaporate as NAFTA kicks into effect, moving manufacturing to cheaper locales abroad. That action is experienced from the perspective of regulars at a local dive bar, each trying to preserve a proud working class culture as much as they are trying to make their way out of poverty.
But as the fight over jobs and wages between unions and factories intensifies, so do the racial tensions that were always there simmering in the background, ready to boil with just a dash of salt. The tribal notions of who does and doesn’t deserve jobs, something all-too-often driven by skin color and cultural supremacy, tears the bar apart as one character is promoted to factory management, and must then lock out her friends in a strike, and another crosses picket lines in the hopes of a pitifully small raise from his job as a barback.
Though that chapter of American history is functionally closed, with manufacturing jobs gone abroad never to return, the issues contained in the story are many of the same still running hot in the streets of Baltimore, Ferguson and Chicago and more on the evening news, and in the fiery rhetoric of national election campaigns, which makes it feel as we aren’t now nearly two decades past the action.
One downside to Sweat’s undeniable modernity, is that with a plot plucked from recent history, the story’s twists and turns aren’t hard to predict. They’re telegraphed as much by a tragic inevitability as they are by the headlines. Like a train barreling by, it can only go where the tracks take it: to where we now stand. And that gives Sweat an urgency unmatched in any other show this critic has seen at OSF.
However it’s hard not to feel a certain irony that this tale of class and race is shown to an almost exclusively white audience at prices up to $110 a head.
But for entertainment value, that doesn’t matter. The plot is instantly relatable, and is executed through truly magnetic performances from a stellar cast. Kimberly Scott is a force of nature as Cynthia, seamlessly moving back and forth between being the life of the party and voice of reason when the same party turns ugly. Stephen Michael Spencer brings sympathy for the devil in the role of Jason, and Carlo Alban as Oscar is an undercover knockout, mixing a potent cocktail of desperation, rage and earnestness with dialog that could easily be read as whiny on the page.
Altogether it makes for a thoroughly gripping show that is one of the standouts of OSF’s 2015 season.
If nothing else, it’s probably the only time you’ll ever see an Eminem song incorporated into an OSF production. So don’t miss that.
Sweat runs at OSF through October 31.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jenny Graham