THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, , From Issue 942 By: Robert E Martin
23rd February, 2023 0
American playwright Lynn Nottage sharpens the tip of her tongue to create verbal tapestries of illumination that populate the overall experience of working-class people, particularly working-class people living in the new millennium.
Threaded together by topics that hit close to home, audiences throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region can be assured of experiencing the transformative power of the theatre when Pit & Balcony presents the regional premier of Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning play titled SWEAT in a series of performances Thursday through Sunday, March 17-19th & 24-26th.
The first and only woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama two times (in 2009 she secured the honor for her play Ruined) Nottage began working on the play in 2011 by interviewing numerous residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, which at that time according to the United States Census Bureau, was officially one of the poorest cities in America, with a poverty rate of over 40%.
Through these interviews, coupled together by the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, Nottage meticulously threaded together a narrative in SWEAT that serves as a powerful and emotional look at identity, race, economy, and transgressions that take place within the corridors of power. Exploring the affects upon residents of the loss of their industrial base and experiencing the changing ethnic composition of their city firsthand forged the inspiration for Nottage to create the play.
The plot consists of many different characters, but is centered around three friends that work for the steel factory. Tracy is a middle aged white woman who loves to hang out at the bar with her friends and has a gruff kind of humor. She cannot stand the way Reading has been changing over the years. Her friend Cynthia is a black woman who also loves to hang out with her friends at the bar and is also a hardworking woman in the factory with a husband who is addicted to drugs, while the third friend, Jessie, is not so happy with how her life has turned out and has some problems with alcohol abuse.
Two other pivotal characters consist of Jason, who is Tracey's son, along with his best friend Chris, who happens to be Cynthia’s son. They both work at the factory and worry that they will be laid off. They both are arrested for assault and are released eight years later.
SWEAT also examines the disintegration of a friendship, after these two women – one white, one black – apply for the same management job. The latter character gets the position, but soon the company moves jobs to Mexico. The trade union goes on strike, and company management locks out the workers. The management/worker division begins to separate the friends, and racial tensions separate them further.
For veteran Director Michael Wisniewski, there are many factors and attributes about SWEAT that drew him to assume the reins of rendering the debut of this contemporary masterpiece for the regional stage. “First and foremost is the fact this is a really well-crafted show and Nottage is a superb playwright,” he explains. “This play is so real life and filled with characters you could pull off the street and more importantly, it’s very relationship driven.”
“The centerpiece of the play is the relationship between the characters of Cynthia & Tracey, who’s friendship deteriorates when one of them becomes a manager of the factory,” he continues. “But what really drew me into this play is the way it begins with two young men out of jail who spent eight years behind bars and are meeting with their parole officer. These young men are named Jason and Chris and are the sons of Cynthia & Tracey. One of them has Nazi tattoos all over his arms and looks like he joined the Aryan Nation, while the other is more calm, religious, and very spiritual inside, so there’s a different dynamic inside the two of them.”
“It isn’t until the third scene near the end of the play that you find out why they’re in jail, and it just totally grabs you because you see the consequences of their actions,” states Mike. “Despite the heavy weight of the narrative, there are also comedic parts and the play is crafted so well - its full of language and vulgarity that is there for a reason, along with adult situations and all of that, but the bottom line is it’s a powerful play. When you see the last scene it’s like a punch in the gut.”
Wisniewski says that some of the themes he is trying to focus upon, apart from the disintegration of Reading’s manufacturing base in large part thanks to NAFTA (The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) that marked the beginning of globalization and was supported by both Bill Clinton & Bob Dole in the fateful 2000 presidential election) is the friendships and relationships that surface as the positive themes in the production.
“What I’m striving to achieve is a tenor of ‘calm tension’, so the actors aren’t engaged in a screaming match, but rather use this anger, doubt, and sense of betrayal as a bedrock of tension seething beneath the play,” he explains. “My vision is to allow the play to tell its story and show these characters in a fashion where they’re not weighted down by a big set and fancy lighting, because all the action is based upon their interactions.”
“That’s one of the reasons we are casting seven brand new actors for this production,” he notes. “I wanted to cast real people from real life and didn’t want anybody over-acting. The two women that play Cynthia & Tracey (Katrina Hill & Lyndzi Sakowski) are new to the stage and learning theatre as well as learning the script, but what we’ll get in the end is the realness - that real edge to it.”
Other newcomers to the Pit & Balcony stage include Adam Williams, Amor Watson, Matthew Turner, Katrina Hill, and Edward Walker, while the remainder of the cast is rounded out by Nathan Hanley in the role of Jason, Richard Gomez as Oscar the bartender, Annie Gower as Jessie, and the radio newscaster portrayed by Kevin Profitt.
“All of these novice actors are sponges and really love the show,” Wisniewski adds. “What you’ll get out of this is a pristineness insofar as two or three of the actors have actually worked in factories, so they have real life experience. This is why I decided to build two weeks of solid table work into our rehearsal time - because this play is so character driven. One night they spent much of the time talking with each other and building chemistry, and that’s what you want to cultivate - a close ensemble.”
“They all want to do a good job, and they’re going to do exactly that,” concludes Michael. “Because its set in 2000 and 2008, this is one of the first socio-politico plays of the new millennium, with characters based upon real individuals and what happens to relationships when choices are made.”
Pit & Balcony Community Theatre’s production of SWEAT will run Thursday through Sunday, March 17-29 and 24-26. Friday & Saturday performances are at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees are at 3:00 pm. Tickets can be purchased by phoning 989-754-6587 or visiting PitandBalconyTheatre.com.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)