Sweat, Written by Lynn Nottage
Skeleton Crew, Written by Dominique Morisseau
Reviewed by Sherry Linkon
We often think of deindustrialization as a phenomenon of the 1970s and 80s, but, as the recent announcement of the closing of the Carrier factory in Indiana reminds us, plants continue to downsize and close, and industrial workers continue to lose their jobs as companies seek cheaper labor and fewer regulations. The working class also continues to adapt to the economic and social changes wrought by deindustrialization, forty years after the most significant wave of shutdowns. Unionization has declined while wage stagnation and precarious working conditions have become the norm. Economic restructuring – of which deindustrialization is perhaps the most visible and dramatic symptom – has also made white collar and professional work less secure, so middle-class people are now experiencing the anxiety and disruptions that have been so painfully familiar to displaced industrial workers for the last few decades.
It is the continuing significance of deindustrialization – its half-life – that makes two new plays about downsizing factories worth seeing. While both tell familiar stories about the tenuousness of solidarity, the persistence of divisions around race and class, and the injuries of economic insecurity, they also remind us that workers and their experiences matter. In a moment when media representations of the working class vacillate between the foolish stereotypes of sitcoms like Superstore or Two Broke Girls and the problematic claim that Donald Trump’s supporters are representative of a disenfranchised, angry, racist working class, playwrights Dominique Morisseau and Lynn Nottage offer characters who, even as their behavior sometimes reflects stereotypes, feel real and complex. That their tales of working-class struggle also focus on African Americans and women makes them even more important, since most media and artistic stories about deindustrialization and working-class lives focus on white men.
Lynn Nottage’s Sweat was jointly commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and after opening in Oregon in July, 2015, it ran for several months at each venue. Set mostly in a workers’ bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, the play follows three clusters of characters, men and women, black and white, across two generations, as they celebrate birthdays, debate whether to accept their employers’ demands for concessions, and vent their anger at both the company and the scabs who step in during a lockout. Three middle-aged women, Jessie, Tracey, and Cynthia, two white, one black, started at the mill around the same time, nearly 30 years earlier, and their close friendship was formed on the line, as they helped each other survive in a factory not especially welcoming to women. The bar manager, Stan, and Cynthia’s husband Brucie, have already been displaced, one by injury and another by a lockout at a different factory. Stan serves up commentary along with beer and whiskey, while Brucie battles a growing addiction to drugs that is also undermining his marriage to Cynthia. The younger generation is represented by three men, Tracey’s son Jason and Cynthia’s son Chris, who both work at the steel mill, and Oscar, a Colombian-American busboy at the bar. Scene by scene, we watch their allegiances shift as Cynthia gets promoted to supervisor and as the stresses of the lockouts deepen. When Oscar quits the bar to take a non-union job at the mill, conflict turns to violence, with tragic consequences. Interwoven with this primary narrative are several scenes set eight years later, after the mill has closed and as Jason and Chris return home from prison. These scenes highlight the real, long-term costs of deindustrialization: lost homes, unemployment, workers juggling multiple part-time jobs to scrape by, increasing drug abuse, but also anger, resignation, and the almost complete disintegration of relationships.
Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, the last of her three-play cycle about black lives in Detroit, tells a similarly discouraging story. Set in the breakroom of an auto plant, Skeleton Crew focuses on how anxiety about a possible shutdown affects four African-American workers. The eldest, Faye, a union rep who has worked at the plant for almost thirty years, serves as a gruff mother figure to three younger workers, including the supervisor, Reggie, whose mother was her best friend. Having lost her home because of a gambling addiction, Faye is secretly living at the plant, in part because her son has broken off his relationship with her because his pastor “done convinced him a lesbian grandmamma wasn’t the best influence or some shit.” Her younger colleague, Shanita, worries about losing the job that has defined her sense of self. As she tells Faye, “Workin’ in this industry is what I do. Uncertainty is always there. But it’s the work I’m made of. . . . Being a skilled trades worker . . . that’s something I can stand on.” The two men in the play, however, want to do better for themselves. Reggie has moved from the line into the supervisor’s job, while Dez wants to open his own repair shop. Yet they also struggle with racism. When Reggie threatens to search Dez’s locker because the company suspects he has been stealing from the plant, Dez resists, noting how Reggie and his bosses assume that he is “up to no good.” While Reggie denies this, he later finds himself in a similar position.
While both plays focus on how workers respond to the threat of losing their jobs, they also serve as reminders of the vulnerability and frustration of the working class in an increasingly unequal society. As labor history reminds us, even when workers lose the battle, their struggles demand our attention, not only for what they tell us about organized labor but also because they reveal the challenges and the defiance of the working class. That said, it is telling that, unlike the proletarian literature of the 1930s, in which workers’ struggles often led characters into activism and political critique, if not always to labor triumph, these plays present more conflicted and ambivalent views of unions and worker solidarity. This reflects the decline in union power over the past few decades, of course – another of the social costs of deindustrialization, but it also reflects the conflicted history of African Americans with both factories and unions. In both plays, characters recall their struggles to gain access to good jobs and union membership. In program notes for Skeleton Crew, Morisseau explains that UAW activists taught her that “the union has helped to build our rights not just as workers, but as American citizens.” But, as she acknowledges, those stories do not appear in the play. Although she dedicates the play to “workers on all sides of the line that are trying to negotiate their survival and the revolutionary union movements that pushed the soul of justice into the labor force,” she also highlights the resistance some younger workers feel toward the union. While Faye, the oldest character in the play and the union rep, insists that it’s her job to protect her fellow workers, she also has to deal with complaints from a younger colleague: “You bastards pull money outta my paycheck every month, for what? Only thing the UAW do for me is force me to strike when I don’t even want to.” We hear similar complaints from younger workers in Sweat, and while they stand with the union when they are locked out, the play also makes clear the limits of the union’s power. Although the workers unite to reject the company’s demands for concessions, the company first locks them out and later closes the plant. In Skeleton Crew, it is Faye’s individual self-sacrifice – giving up her job just a few months shy of the thirty years she needs to secure a good pension — not union activism that protects the younger characters’ jobs. Both plays remind us of the challenges workers face when companies threaten to close plants or try to break unions, though neither offers a story of union strength or success.
Instead, these plays suggest a tension between solidarity and opportunity. Each includes a character who has been promoted to supervisor, promotions that seem to promise not just individual upward mobility but progress for black workers. The two new supervisors think they will be able to fight for, not with, their rank-and-file friends, but both find themselves caught between the company’s demands and their loyalty to fellow workers. In Sweat, soon after Cynthia is promoted, she is assigned the terrible task of standing at the entrance of the mill and turning workers away, literally locking out her friends. She also sides with management, urging her friends into accepting wage cuts in order to keep their jobs and save the mill from closing. In Skeleton Crew, Morisseau links the internal tensions that accompany a move from the line to the supervisor’s office with conflicts over both class and race. As a supervisor, Reggie tries to defend his friends against management’s manipulations, but when stands up to his boss, he discovers his own vulnerability as a black man. He comes away from the argument shaken, worried that he has revealed himself to be too angry and volatile.
The two plays are remarkably similar, but while both explore how economic insecurity heightens tensions rooted in the connections and tensions among race, gender, and class, Sweat focuses more clearly on the fragility of solidarity. While the women were bound together through shared experiences of class and gender, their different histories ultimately divide them. Both Tracey and Cynthia remember how proud they were to get jobs in the steel mill, but Tracey, who is white, got in because her father already worked there. In contrast, Cynthia remembers feeling “like I was invited into an exclusive club. Not many of us folks worked there. Not us.” Their friendships and lives are disrupted, first by Cynthia’s promotion and then by the lockout, and loyalties built around gender and class fracture along racial lines. Tracey insists that Cynthia was promoted because she is a minority, and she eggs Jason on when he starts a fight with Oscar, the Colombian-American busboy, who has crossed the picket line during the lockout because a job in the mill gives him a chance to pursue his own better life. While Sweat shows how the loss of work can undermine solidarity, the play also reminds us that, in the end, everyone is vulnerable. By the time the play is done, the mill has closed, and everyone is struggling to get by, now without the social network that had once been so important.
The two playwrights have described these plays as inspired by their growing awareness of economic insecurity and inequality. Nottage set Sweat in Reading because the U.S. Census identified it as the poorest city in the country. She spent two years there interviewing locals, including the locked out workers at a steel mill, but she has also written that the play was inspired by an email she received from a middle-class friend who was struggling financially. That message made her realize that “most of us are living two or three doors away from someone who is either in poverty or on the verge of poverty, and that’s the nature of the culture we’re living in right now.” Similarly, Morisseau acknowledges the struggles of workers who are “trying to negotiate their survival” as well as the efforts of “the revolutionary union movements that pushed the soul of justice into the labor force.” However, in an interview with the New York Times, she puts the labor story into the context of Detroit’s economic decline, recalling an encounter with a woman there who was living in her car. Morisseau was troubled to realize that “This is the Motor City. This is where people make cars. Now it’s become a city where people are living in their cars.”
While neither of these plays offers much hope for workers or for organized labor, they offer powerful glimpses into the economic and social challenges of working-class people, and especially working-class people of color, in contemporary American culture. These stories, like narratives about plants closing and workers worrying about losing their jobs, have become familiar in recent years. But like Latoya Ruby Frazier’s photographs of residents of Braddock, Pennsylvania, or Jessica Care Moore’s poems recalling the hard-working Detroit men of her youth, these plays insist that however familiar the story of working-class struggle may be, we must attend to these voices.
Skeleton Crew is scheduled for a short repeat run at the Atlantic Theater in New York starting on May 13, 2016. In February, Sweat was awarded the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which recognizes outstanding work by women playwrights, and the play may come to New York later this year. If you get a chance to see either of these plays, go.