By Susan Nolan
When the dot-com bubble burst on March 10, 2000, the U.S. economy became headline news, and the subsequent recession impacted every industry and aspect of American life. As factories closed and unemployment rose, so did racial tension, anti-immigrant sentiments, and opioid addiction. The city of Reading, Pennsylvania, was among the hardest areas hit. Against this bleak backdrop, playwright Lynn Nottage set her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
The U.S. Naval Academy’s collegiate theater company, The Masqueraders, has taken on this gritty, realistic—and violent—drama as their fall 2022 production. The story opens in 2008 with Brucie (Rob Saunders), an unemployed addict, reciting Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America before cutting to a parole officer (Washington Ross) meeting with two very different young men. The former friends, incarcerated for a crime committed together, have been changed by their experiences in prison. Jason (Christian Landis) is now a bitter, hardened member of the white supremacist group the Aryan Brotherhood. African American Chris (Joel Thomas) has found religion and hopes to put the past behind him. From there the plot unfolds, telling the story of the circumstances surrounding the violent act that sent the men to prison eight years earlier.
We meet their mothers, Tracey (Lillian Kelly) and Cynthia (Sofia Okorafor), and their drunken coworker Jessie (Olivia Hunt) in 2000. The women are lifelong friends until Cynthia’s promotion to management stirs racial tensions and accusations amid the factory’s relocation to Mexico.
Most of the action takes place in a small bar run by Stan (Ty Fuselier), a former factory worker who walks with a limp as the result of an on-the-job injury. He is assisted by Oscar (Andre Saiz), a Latino busboy eager to improve his quality of life.
Three perky broadcast journalists (Mary Casper, Alyssa Nagle, and Eduardo Ramirez) move the audience from the year 2000 to 2008 by introducing the scenes with the date and national and local headlines. They read the news—no matter how devastating—with cheesy smiles and giddiness. They are Sweat’s only comic relief.
Under the direction of Dr. Christy Stanlake, the Masqueraders give an intense and even performance in their first publicly promoted show since 2019. The ensemble cast is believable as worried Rust Belt residents living paycheck-to-paycheck. The costumes and set add to the air of authenticity.
Stanlake, a USNA professor and faculty advisor for the Masqueraders, says she was drawn to Sweat because the script fosters empathy across racial and socio-economic lines. “The midshipmen go on to be leaders and will be leading and working with people from a diverse background,” she says, “and this play gives voice to some of those people.”
In addition to the outstanding acting, Sweat is worth seeing because the societal and economic events of 2000 are still relevant and have the power to spark thoughtful dialog about today’s political climate.
“In many ways, Reading was a touchstone for what was to come,” notes Stanlake.
Be warned, however, Sweat is not for everyone. There is profanity and depictions of violence. And this play is long: Saturday night’s performance ran 2 hours and 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Sweat wraps this weekend. The final performances are Friday, Nov. 18, and Saturday, Nov. 19, both shows at 8pm in Mahan Hall. Tickets are $15 w/discounts, RSVP: https://navyperforms.showare.com.
Editor’s note: Does something sound familiar? It’s because we ran a review of Sweat as produced by 2nd Star Productions in Bowie this summer: https://bayweekly.com/playgoer-2nd-star-productions-sweat/.