Paul Herbert and Jenn Griffin Pedro Meza
dSWEAT, WHICH WON the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for drama, gets top marks for relevance. But Lynn Nottage’s examination of working-class disenfranchisement in Middle America is only intermittently dramatic.
The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cities in the U.S. The action begins in 2008, as a parole officer conducts backto-back interviews with two men who’ve recently been released from prison: Jason, a white guy with a swastika tattooed on his neck, and Chris, a black man who has found religion while incarcerated. We don’t know the nature of their crime, only that they were in it together.
The play then flashes back to early 2000 and a pub frequented by workers from the local factory. Tracey and Cynthia have worked on the floor for decades, along with their friend Jessie and, more recently, their sons—that’s right, Jason and Chris. But in the early years of NAFTA and George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, the climate for labour is changing: the unionized workers at another company have been locked out for nearly two years. In a series of scenes set just a few weeks apart, we see the friends experience dramatic changes in their circumstances and their loyalties.
Sweat is not a work of verbatim theatre, but it seems to spring from some of the same impulses. Nottage interviewed Reading residents as she developed the script, which ticks a lot of boxes: prejudice, scapegoating, drug and alcohol addiction, religion, white supremacy. Every character is defined by the factory: they speak of their pride in having a union card, and more than one says proudly, “I’m a worker.” Even Stan, the bartender, found his new role after an accident at the plant: “Getting injured was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. But the dialogue tends to make political points rather than explore relationships, which—even between parents and their kids— exist almost exclusively in relation to the workplace.
And the slow ratcheting up of tension in the first act means there’s not a lot in the way of real action. The plot’s steady containment boosts the impact of Act 2’s inevitable explosion of violence, but it also means much of the early going is a sustained lull.
The cast does strong work under Valerie Planche’s direction. Cynthia is the most fully developed character, and Marci T. House embraces all her contradictions. Anthony Santiago plays her ex, Brucie, with hangdog resignation. Nicole St. Martin’s Tracey is gritty and defiant, while Andrew Creightney brings a gentle hopefulness to Chris. Ashley Wright’s Stan, always calm and generous, is a solid anchor.
Shizuka Kai’s set fills the wide Stanley stage with a very authentic pub backdrop, down to the green walls, wood trim, and abundance of Budweiser logos, behind which looms the shadow of the factory, expressively lit by Daniela Masellis. Fight director Jonathan Hawley Purvis also deserves mention: the violence late in the play is sickeningly real.
So is the decline in the fortunes of working-class Americans. This play ends in 2008, but 10 years later, things have only gotten worse.
dCIRCUS TRICKS WERE not on the menu when French troupe Wang Ramirez brought its fresh mix of contemporary dance and aerial wires to Vancouver. As a wowed crowd at the Dancehouse season opener witnessed, the company draws beautiful, metaphorical imagery using rigging.
The overall effect is dreamlike and poetic—not the kind of show you might expect from a crew so deeply grounded in hip-hop.
In one duet, company cofounder Honji Wang slipped repeatedly out of partner Sébastien Ramirez’s grasp, floating ghostlike, just out of reach; later, she walked surreally up the side of his bare torso. A couple’s inability to connect became delirious art.
In another duet, two women on bungees ran and hurled themselves repeatedly toward a steel structure, only to be yanked back, pulled up into the air, just as they closed in. You couldn’t help but conjure refugees and border fences from their Sisyphean struggle.
Part of Borderline’s appeal is its sheer simplicity. The dancers share the stage with two symbolic, cagelike metal cubes that move around and get hoisted on wires. In a stunning solo, Ramirez, wearing a harness, break-danced with one rolling form, tumbling in and out of its bars like he was in an antigravity chamber.
Cleverly, master rigger Alister Mazzotti, all in black, was almost always visible, an ever-present force controlling the performers’ fate.
Influenced by Wang’s background in ballet and martial arts, the movement seamlessly fused hip-hop into a new hybrid. But the entire five-member crew’s mad breaking skills were obvious; they executed dizzying windmills wearing flowing, white-satin skirts that closed in over their feet. In one of the show’s brief hits of comedy, Wang and the striking, shaved-headed Johanna Faye managed to break-dance wearing ridiculous sky-high heels.
While the vignettes flowed in and out of one another seamlessly, deeper metaphors about democracy and diaspora weren’t always sustained.
But the movement was such a cool new fusion, and the imagery—backed by lacrymoboy’s moody score—built enough of a mesmerizing hold that when the encore’s B-boy battle came, it was a pure, cathartic thrill.