"Companies use racial fracturing to distract from what they're doing to a whole community."
A Broadway play probes a working-class community
Kate Whoriskey describes herself as "someone who loves jury duty."
The director is referring not to the civic obligation that most Americans dread, but to the notion of interacting with strangers and new points of view. "I love these things that are more about being in a room with people you'd never meet," she says.
New York theatregoers know the feeling, she adds. "I feel like a lot of New Yorkers like that experience, when you're in a room with people unlike you."
How appropriate, then, that she's directing Lynn Nottage's new play Sweat, which is now in previews at Broadway's Studio 54. With its dramatization of what Whoriskey calls "the new American poor," her razor-sharp production not only probes the deep differences among the characters, but also presses audience members to consider their own relationship to class in America.
"You can feel what your opinions are and what your neighbor's opinion is just by sitting with them," Whoriskey says. "With this play there are certain things that happen where people feel like, 'Oh, I absolutely identify with that moment.' And those moments are different depending on who you are. So you learn about your fellow audience member as you sit with them."
Such reactions depend in part on an audience member's understanding of the community depicted onstage: blue-collar workers losing their jobs after spending lifetimes on a factory floor. Set in the neighborhood bar of a manufacturing town that's going under, Nottage's story seeks to give voice to people whose lives are rocked by the decline of American industry.
"There is something about Lynn's writing that creates a kind of empathy for people," says Whoriskey, who also worked with Nottage on her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner Ruined. The charming, tightknit community torn apart in Sweat is based on steel workers the two interviewed in Reading, Pennsylvania. "Our interest was the idea of jobs going overseas and what happens to the people who are left behind, who have a skill set that is really specific to the work they've been doing for 20 years."
Beyond financial anxiety, Whoriskey and Nottage also tackle racially motivated violence. The characters come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and while that doesn't matter so much when everyone is prospering, it becomes a volcanic factor when the work dries up.
A tense confrontation in 'Sweat'
"In every scene there are breadcrumbs toward the violence that happens," Whoriskey says. By the time Tracy (Johanna Day) is egging on her frustrated son Jason (Will Pullen) to target the Latino bar-back Oscar (Carlo Alban) for accepting a strike-busting job, the audience must be primed for conflict. Working with the actors, it's Whoriskey's job to shape the performances so that their endpoints feel inevitable.
"It's a series of acting moments that need to happen in order to then build the fight," she says. "We've always described the structure of the play to be, 'Every scene makes the tension more taut.'" She adds that this is a dramatized reflection of the way real manufacturing companies "use racial fracturing as a way to distract from what they're doing to a whole community."
For liberal New Yorkers in the audience, that perspective may be eye-opening. "So many people have said, 'Thank you for doing this play because I didn't know anything about those people and I'm happy to learn about them,' " Whoriskey says. Particularly after the election of Donald Trump, during which anti-immigrant rhetoric took hold in industrialized communities, she says, "people on both sides [politically] recognize the need for the story. The play was written before Trump was even running, so it's just one of those things where he happens to make it more timely."
So is it true, as some claim, that city dwellers represent an elitist bubble isolated from the plight of working-class America? And if so, are Whoriskey and Nottage using empathy to bridge the divide? "I would hope so," answers Whoriskey with a laugh. "The liberal bubble is certainly popping, that's for sure.
"I think there's a yearning to understand people who are in dire straits right now. This play is really asking us to take care of each other."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for 'Sweat.' Go here to browse our current offers.
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Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo (L to R): Michelle Wilson and Johanna Day.