Pulitzer-winning play at Chicago’s Goodman Theater resonates in small towns abandoned by industry
By Ted Cox
Many small and midsize towns across Illinois are apt to recognize themselves in the new Goodman Theater production of “Sweat,” just as Aaron Mays, the play’s assistant director, does.
“I actually have a lot more touch points to the play than I thought,” Mays said this week. Its tale of workers being abandoned by a factory moving production to Mexico echoes with what he and his family went through while he was growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1990s.
“I come from three generations of factory workers,” Mays said. “So the people in the play, for sure, remind me of the people I grew up with.”
Lynn Notage’s play, which earned her her second Pulitzer Prize in 2017, bounces back and forth in time between 2000 and 2008, creating a before-and-after picture of a small factory town modeled on Reading, Pa., outside Philadelphia.
“You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico,” says Keith Kupferer’s Stan, a former factory worker injured on the job, who now tends bar at the tavern where the play is set — sort of the “third place,” aside from work and home, where the workers meet and fraternize.
Andre Teamer’s Brucie is the first to feel the effects of change, as his textile mill locks out union workers, sending him into a spiral of alcohol and drug abuse.
“They’re trying to break the union,” he says, but soon he’s the broken man.
That also threatens to break up the family unit with his wife, Tyla Abercrumbie’s Cynthia, and his son, Edgar Miguel Sanchez’s Chris. She’s about to lay claim to a promotion to the (nonunion) executive ranks at the other major factory still in town, while he’s mulling a shift in career to teacher — once he squirrels away some money working “the line.”
Mays said that was the exact career path taken by his mother. His great-grandfather and grandfather were both factory workers who found positions in the Buffalo-Niagara area in the Great Migration of African Americans to the north — “Everybody went to a factory,” he said — but his mother left her well-paying job “on the line” for another in education — and went on to teach for 30 years.
Chris never makes it that far. He gets tied up in an incident with his childhood friend Jason, played by Mike Cherry, and his single mother, Kirsten Fitzgerald’s Tracey, who’s best buddies with Cynthia and Chaon Cross’s Jessie, a factory worker with dreams of traveling the world.
Those dreams, Mays pointed out, get deferred. “It starts with them all being friends. They’re friends, they work together,” he said. “What you do see is the stress that they go through, because of the plant leaving — deferred dreams, basically. All these dreams are dashed along the way.”
Cynthia warns, “They can move the whole factory to Mexico tomorrow morning,” but it’s Brucie who quickly adds it up when half the factory machinery suddenly goes missing, moved out overnight.
“No machines, no jobs,” he says. “That’s pretty simple arithmetic.”
Chris and Jason offer the starkest difference in their before-and-after lives. There’s good reason Jason turns up later with a swastika tattooed on his forehead, as the pressure the abandoned workers are placed under opens up divisions on race, class, and entitlement.
“There’s a scrambling for resources,” Mays said. “When you take an economic engine out of the community, that’s what happens,” he added, workers feel “the distress that happens when you take that out of a community.’
In Mays’s experience, “There’s a distinct color line that happens when resources are strained.”
Any number of towns across Illinois have felt the same effects, from factories both large and small leaving town and leaving employees bereft, and the same could be applied to stores and other businesses that suddenly close up shop.
“You have high unemployment, you have low-skilled workers, who now have nowhere to go,” Mays said.
Nottage’s play is unflinching in gauging the impact, and it doesn’t settle for any easy answers, but it’s also a bit ham-fisted in the lessons it draws. Even so, many abandoned employees could probably benefit from seeing versions of themselves onstage dealing with the same issues.
Mays, who came to the Chicago area in 2003 to attend Northwestern University and never went back, has wound up working under director Ron OJ Parson, who likewise is a Buffalo product.
“Our families know each other,” Mays said. “Basically, two to three degrees of separation. My mom worked with his cousin.”
They never met until they were both pursuing careers in Chicago theater, but Mays said there was a certain affinity because of their shared background. They collaborated first at Chicago’s Court Theater, now at the Goodman — and certainly felt a shared set of experiences on this project, which strikes close to home.
“I grew up in the shadows of that,” Mays said. Now, as assistant director, he directs and prepares the understudies and works to “assist Ron in his vision and be the extra set of eyes in the room.” That includes checking in on the play, from time to time, to make sure the acting stays crisp and on message.
“Sweat” runs through April 14 at the Goodman, 170 N. Dearborn St., with tickets ranging from $20 to $80, available online or by calling (312) 443-3800.