Back when I first started watching Theatre Aquarius productions, as a teenager, way back in the early nineteen eighties, it was fairly easy to predict the plays that would be programmed by artistic director Peter Mandia, based upon whatever scripts had been successful on Broadway, or in London’s West End, in any given season.
On average, it took about three years, for Aquarius to get the performance rights to them, but I still recall with some nostalgia, seeing plays like, Peter Shaffer’s Equus, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, Ira Levin’s thriller Deathtrap or Athol Fugard’s powerful racial drama about apartheid, Master Harold and the Boys, which seemed to follow this pattern.
These were entirely local productions, produced in Hamilton with professional actors, and it is my opinion, that they were just as good, as anything seen in New York, although admittedly with actors with less name recognition, perhaps. In 2020, with Ron Ulrich as Artistic Director, this no longer seems the case quite as much, as it once was, that a hit play, will automatically end up staged at Aquarius.
But still this historical pattern does come to mind, in thinking about American playwright Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Sweat, which begins a two weekend run at the Dofasco Centre, this week. The same play, although with a different cast and production team, just opened last weekend in Toronto at CanStage, making it a real possibility to see both of the two different professional productions of the same play, on offer in our area.
Lynn Nottage, is one of four playwrights, although the only woman, to have twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, putting her in a select company of writers such as, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and August Wilson. Nottage, who teaches playwrighting at Columbia University, did a massive amount of research to tell this story, making many trips to Reading, Pennsylvania, over two and a half years, to interview people there. It’s a documentary style play, in that it was based upon the testimony of real people, who shared their experiences with the playwright.
Sweat is set in a “blue collar” bar, in Reading, between the years 2000 and 2008. It focuses on the friendship between three working class women, two white and one black, whose relationship unravels when they all apply for a middle level management job, for US Steel.
It also, follows the fate of two young Reading, Pennsylvania men and their families, whose lives are upended when changes come to the local steel–tubing factory which has long employed the town’s residents. It’s a stark, honest, and very human portrait of desperation and despondency in contemporary America.
Directed by Ron Ulrich, with Set and Costume Designs by Doug Paraschuk, the cast for this Theatre Aquarius version includes, Nehassaiu deGannes, René Escobar Jr., Allison Hossack, Randy Hughson, Jeff Lillico, Laurie Paton, E. B. Smith, and Tenaj Williams.
Nottage has said in interviews that her motto while writing the play, was “to replace judgment with curiosity.” It is easy to recognize, that America is more polarized politically than, it has ever been in its history, particularly after the 2016 election that elected Donald Trump, and the current impeachment scandal, that the President, finds himself embroiled in.
“For about two and a half years, I went back and forth between New York and Reading, Pennsylvania to interview people, because I was really interested in the ways that economic stagnation was influencing American cities, in particular cities that had once been industrial powerhouses. In the midst of doing the interviews, I came across a group of locked–out steel workers who I thought had a really compelling story. It’s something I knew on an intellectual level was happening in the world, but really didn’t strike me until I sat down with them — the extent to which these things were happening to people in America. And these were people who were, by and large, middle–aged white men who had thoroughly bought into the American Dream and didn’t expect that overnight their lives would change so drastically.”
Hamilton, Ontario and Reading Pennsylvania, are both “post industrial” cities, in that the core industries, such as steel making, that supported the community for years, are now in decline. So the play asks specifically, “how do citizens adapt to the death of a steel industry”?
Something that remains important here too, for Hamiltonians, particularly after US STEEL bought out STELCO, in 2007, to shut down the Hilton Works, and move production to the USA. Thankfully the company has reorganized, and is on a sounder footing these days, although the Hamilton plant remains shuttered.
I would ask, is theatre a medium by which unions, and the left, can to do a better job about selling collective action to the general population, in particular since the rise of Populist right wing politicians, like Doug Ford, in our current political reality.
Nottage was commissioned to write a play about “an American Revolution” by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which led to a first production at Arena Stage in Washington in 2015. But the immediate prompt for the script, was an email she received from a middle class friend in 2008, who was in desperate financial straits and felt helpless in the face of losing her job, and home.
“One evening I got an email from a friend sharing the fact that for a period of time she had been completely and absolutely broke. She was someone I knew quite well and saw regularly. I felt horrible that I had no idea she was struggling. The next morning, we had a long conversation that coincided with the beginning of the first week of the Occupy Wall Street protest against economic inequality. So, these two middle-aged women went down there and chanted. Nothing changed, but at least she knew she was not alone. To me, Occupy Wall Street raised a lot of questions that were not answered. That put me out on the street, to figure out how economic stagnation was shifting the American narrative and how so many people who had so thoroughly invested in the American dream found themselves broadsided.”
When rents in Toronto are hitting $2500 a month, and 7500 people are living in shelter beds for the homeless, how do we, as citizens, fight back against the tiny privileged section of society, who seem to be determined to hoard all of the wealth and political power?
“Sweat hit the stage at a very different time. “It came to New York during and after the 2016 election. I felt that at that moment, the play felt vital and urgent and in conversation with the culture.” Because of these factors, she was not surprised by its reception, adding “that Sweat, went on to have more regional productions.”
German playwright Berthold Brecht, argued that all theatre is inherently political one way or another, in that it deliberately sets out to challenge the status quo, or if it doesn’t, then it reinforces the current political reality of the moment.
Nottage agrees with this: “It’s really important that we reflect what we’re seeing in culture at large, in ways that are truthful, raw and honest, and that we resist the critics, who want us to be gentler in the ways that we confront the things that trouble us. For a generation, there’s been a lot of pushback against plays that are political or grapple with issues in real time, in favour of plays that explore culture in metaphor. There are times that demand a very direct conversation. I think we’re in that moment now.” V
by Lynn Nottage
Presented by Theatre Aquarius,
At the Dofasco Centre for the Arts,
190 King William Street,
January 29 to February 15, 2020,
with performances Tuesdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm,
Saturday and Sunday Matinees:
February 1, 2, 8, 9,15, at 1:30pm.
Tickets: 905-522-7529 or online at tickets.theatreaquarius.org