Riveting Denver Center production of Pulitzer-winning drama features stellar cast

What the fuck is NAFTA? Sounds like a laxative.”

That’s Reading, PA factory worker Tracey (Tara Falk) trying to make sense of a changing world in the play Sweat, the final show of the season for the Denver Center Theatre Company.

It’s 2000, and as the effects of the 1994 NAFTA agreement continue to take a toll on factory workers in the U.S., Tracey’s ignorance of it is tantamount to hurling insults at a meteor heading toward earth.

From Wikipedia: Most economic analyses indicate that NAFTA has been beneficial to the North American economies and the average citizen, but has harmed a small minority of workers in industries exposed to trade competition.

Sweat is, at its heart, a play about that “small minority,” but it speaks to a bigger story about America: a place where the lives of workers like Tracey are decided in boardrooms and in the small print of inscrutable political agreements most will never fully understand. What is understood is when the results of those decisions add up to shuttered factories, once-proud workers accepting handouts to get by and an all-consuming rage that causes them to turn not on the decision-makers — but on themselves.

Playwright Lynn Nottage won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Sweat, and it’s easy to see why. The script is a bonfire of truisms about wealth disparity, told from the trenches and teased out through a series of interpersonal reactions among the regulars at dumpy Mike’s Tavern. Director Rose Riordan has the perfect venue — the in-the-round Space Theatre — and a truly extraordinary cast with which to tell the story.

It will leave you stunned as you leave the theater, gobsmacked by how fully and effectively Nottage’s play portrays the fucked-over American worker in just a few hours’ time.

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Alternating between the dot-com crash of 2000 and the great recession of 2008, Sweat starts by introducing us in the later year to Jason (Derek Chariton) and Chris (Jordan Bellow). Separately, they’re talking to their parole officer (William Oliver Watkins) and neither is having an easy time of it.

Jason’s survival mechanism in prison was to join the white nationalists, and his entire face is covered in hate-tats — a big swastika inked on the back of his head. Chris is a young black man clutching a bible.

These guys used to be friends. What happened?

Back in 2000, we meet Jason’s mom (Tracey) and Chris’s — Cynthia (Cycerli Ash). It’s Tracey’s birthday and, as they always do, they get drunk at Mike’s. Already passed-out at the table is Jessie (Leslie Kalarchian) and behind the bar is Stan (DCPA stalwart Sam Gregory). The talk is of changes at the factory, and Cynthia says she may try for a management position. Tracey, a rough-edged, flannel-wearing worker bee, scoffs at the idea of moving upstairs to work with “them,” but she decides to throw her hat in the ring anyway. She points out that she’s had two more years on the floor than Cynthia, but we also get the sense that, friendship aside, a black woman getting a job she might win would rub her the wrong way.

When Cynthia gets the job and soon thereafter the company starts shifting production to Mexico while locking out workers, it puts the two lifelong friends on opposite sides of the struggle. We’ve already seen what another lockout has done to her estranged husband, Brucie (Timothy D. Stickney), and it’s not pretty. After more than two years walking picket lines, Brucie holds out no hope for ever winning the fight, and his pathetic existence on the fringes serves as a harbinger of what’s to come for the rest of the crew.


The characters in Sweat are not the kind of people who could easily envision picking up and moving elsewhere, even though Stan (as rooted as any of them) points out the wisdom of doing so. Tracey’s grandfather immigrated from Germany and helped build the factory, and they all have similarly deep family ties to the plant. Their mistaken assumption that the company they work for has similar feelings of loyalty is their collective tragic flaw, and when they wait too long to “take the deal” — a 60 percent pay cut, among other insults — they end up on the outs.

A pivotal character turns out to be quiet bar worker Oscar (Gustavo Márquez), a Columbian-American who the others either ignore or deride with insults once he crosses the line at the factory to earn some extra money. A gem of a scene occurs between Oscar and Tracey outside the bar as the rest celebrate Cynthia’s promotion. An ill-tempered Tracey tries to put Oscar in his place with “you people” comments while he points out that he was born in Reading, same as her.

Later, when she sees Oscar playing the scab, it gives her the fuel she needs to toss on a fire in the bar during the climactic scene that lands Chris and Jason in prison. We recognize in Tracey and her son the Trump voter: angry whites who’ve been legitimately screwed over but who focus their rage in all the wrong places. Chris and Stan both try to protect Oscar, arguing that he’s just trying to make a buck, too, but their anger must have an outlet, and the unfortunate Oscar is in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so, as it turns out, is Stan.

A topnotch production

Nottage reportedly did her homework on Reading, known as one of the poorest places in America. Her dialogue rings true even as some of the otherwise accomplished actors struggle a bit to hit realistic working-class dialect. It’s a fascinating window into a world many of us know little about beyond the distant “plant closing” headlines.

Riordan takes full advantage of The Space, pushing some of the more intense scenes to the edges close to the audience while expertly blocking the action to use every angle. Geoffrey Kent’s fight direction in the final bar scene is a great piece of work, depicting a brawl involving several characters with precision, ferocity and realism. Charles MacLeod on lighting and Elisheba Ittoop on sound worked hand-in-glove to create some very nice, portentous transitions that beautifully augmented the tone of the play while providing a few jolts of their own.

Sweat is a strong finish to the DCPA Theatre Company and a must-see for anyone who’d like a little help understanding some of the darker forces at work in America — and the people caught in that crossfire.