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Justice Theater Project's latest in their "From Monologue to Dialogue" season is Sweat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Notage that chronicles a series of dates. The show spends time in two years, eight years apart – 2000 and 2008 – which mark the death of an industry in Pennsylvania. The show takes place in Reading, at a local bar frequented by factory workers. It is run by a factory worker, populated by the same, and is the meeting place for everyone associated with Olsted Steel (the name is fictional, but the events are very real).
Sweat is a timeline. Except for three scenes in 2008, the play chronicles the slow dissolution of a steel mill in Reading. The play is the result of Notage's two-and-a-half year study of what happens when a steel mill dies. It is gritty, it is personal, and it is devastatingly real.
Sweat requires an ensemble cast of nine. Director Jerry Sipp has assembled a crackerjack team of actors who make the events of this play very real. There are many familiar faces in the cast, especially if you are a fan of JTP. In addition to regulars from the company, familiar faces from other companies also join the cast: John Honeycutt, for example, comes to us from his troupe to play Stan, and Jason is played by Matthew Hager of the Aggregate Theater Company. JTP's sound engineer, Juan Isler, pulls double duty as Evan, the local Parole Officer; and Kelly Caniglia moves from JTP's backstage onstage in her role as Jessie. (For lots more information, click here.)
Stan (Honeycutt) and Oscar (Efrain Valencia Santillan) are employed at the local bar; Evan is a P.O.; but everyone else in the cast either is, or was, working at Olsted. In fact, Olsted is the family business for two families here: Brucie (Gerald Louis Campbell) and Cynthia (J. Ra'Chel Fowler) and their son Chris (Brandonn Odom) all worked at the mill – but Brucie was "locked out" (made persona non grata by the factory's management over two years ago) and has yet to make it back inside. Tracie (Andrea Amthor Twiss) and her now-deceased husband both worked there, as does her son Jason (Hager). Jason and Chris are best buds, and all of them meet regularly at Stan's bar. This holds true for all the scenes of the year 2000; not so much in 2008.
Evan is firmly set in the year 2008. Two of his parolees are Jason and Chris. Both of these two men have spent the last eight years in prison. Why is the question; it takes the entirety of the show for us to learn the circumstances that sent them there. We meet the three of them in Sc.1; Jason is now hardened by his time in; he has jail tats on his face and a hair-trigger temper, which does him no good with Evan, who's heard it all and isn't having it from Jason. Chris seems to have fared better, but only somewhat; he is nervous and jittery, and skittish around Evan. Neither of the men has fared well outside; Chris is sleeping in a church, thanks to the local parson, and Jason is sleeping outside in a tent he borrowed from a friend. Evan informs both men that, if things don't improve, they run the risk of failing at parole; each is cautioned to get in touch with family and get straight, stay clean, and try to find work. In 2008, it's that last task that will be the hardest.
After this scene the play shifts to the year 2000; we remain in this year until the penultimate scene of the play. Included in the program are notes on each scene from the playwright herself. It is a monthly timeline that chronicles the events from January to October, and how they effect these two families. Olsted, you see, is about to collapse in on itself, and what it does to these denizens is not pretty.
Director Jerry Sipp has brought together some of the Triangle's lead actors in casting Sweat. The result is an ensemble cast that brings to light life in Reading, PA, during the industrial meltdown that was the end of the steel industry in Ohio. Its demise is about to tear apart two families that have been lifelong friends; this is a microcosm of what seemed to be happening all across the Rust Belt. We move from camaraderie and security to doubt and suspicion; and before it is over, these events will erupt in violence.
Notage's play boils the collapse of the steel industry down into a thimble-sized tempest, which rages wildly despite its tiny surroundings. What these families go through is what was happening all across the Rust Belt; NAFTA and a global economy were wreaking havoc on the local trades. Good jobs dried up; good homes were sacrificed; and good people were strewn haphazardly across the countryside as layoffs and strikes and picket-line crossers were tearing friends and families apart. It is one thing to stand apart and watch an industry die; it is entirely another to experience it, firsthand.
Juan Isler is JTP's resident sound engineer; among his duties was the assembly of a musical accompaniment to what was happening onstage. Songs like "Working Class Hero" and "Allentown" made up the preshow and entr'acte, as these blue-collar anthems pounded out their stories like the thrum of the Olsted Machinery. Set design by Jeffrey Nugent made this bar come alive, with everything from lighted neon advertising to a TV and jukebox and working taps for the beer. The set was so inviting, it prompted two rather unsuspecting patrons to try and set themselves up at one of the tables! Lighting design by Prof. Arthur M. Reese and costume design by Sally Beale Hatlem worked their magic to create a real and convincing scene that showed us how life was in both the thriving, and the dying, Rust Belt during the turn of the 21st Century.
Justice Theater Project spends a lot of time within the community; part of the run of Sweat is the accompaniment of several entities within Raleigh that work in the community to promote communication within industry and their environments. On this occasion we heard from a group called ChickTECH, which seeks out and trains high school girls in the technical industry. Each show's performance will be accompanied by a similar kind of group, working in the community to open the lines of communication and move the conversation into a dialogue. Groups like the ACLU, NC Raise Up, and Haven House will be on hand, among others, to educate and communicate on life in the Raleigh economy.
Sweat is enjoying its regional premiere here at JTP; it is a hard-hitting, pull-no-punches play that requires a cast like family and a crew that is both top-notch and invisible. This play fires on all cylinders, and churns out a picture that played itself out all over the cities and towns of Rust Belt, USA. Whether local and global economies are your cup of tea, or you just want to see a crackerjack team of artists bring theater to life onstage, Sweat is not-to-be-missed theater. For more information on individual performances and tickets, please see the sidebar. But don't wait for tickets; opening night was a sellout, and word of mouth says the entire run will be, too.