The trite phrase of “appreciating the arts” has been said millions of times, yet no one ever seems to protest its usage. The harmony of the words, their pretty little alliteration, and the core message behind them seem all very inoffensive to any audience. In actuality, I’d never thought twice about the implication behind that phrase until I went to go see Sweat by Lynn Nottage.
It was a busy week filled with essays to write and exams to take, and I didn’t have time to look up any information about the play before I went into see it. I knew that Lynn Nottage was the first woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, because a Google search yielded that much; otherwise, I had no presumptions, or even expectations, going into the play. Perhaps because of my “blank slate,” I was more susceptible to the allure, the menace of the performance.
Sweat opens with a meeting, set in 2008, between Evan, a black parole officer, and Jason, a white ex-convict with white supremacist tattoos on his face. Jason then admits to running into Chris, a black ex-convict, and the scene shifts to Evan’s meeting with Chris. The dialogue refers to some event in the past but its ambiguity and the characters’ clear discomfort makes it all the more mysterious. Without any questions answered, the scene shifts to 2000, at a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania.
The majority of the play takes place in this bar. Three close friends—Cynthia, Tracey, and Jessie—are frequent guests, with Cynthia’s ex-husband, Brucie, making an appearance now and then. While Stan bartends, Oscar does manual labor in the back, quietly and alone. At first, their boisterous conversations and happy, lazy smiles, all glazed with a bit too much alcohol, seem typical of an after-work bar crowd. Cynthia, Tracey, and Jessie all work at the same factory, and Jason, Tracey’s son, and Chris, Cynthia’s son, are the best of friends. But there is a tangible and growing schism and tension between friends.
For me, as an audience member, witnessing that schism firsthand changed and even disturbed me. The racial and class lines become more and more apparent and visible, even when the audience doesn’t particularly want to see them. In the play’s first opening minutes, 2008 Jason talks back to his parole officer and calls him the N-word. Cynthia, the sole black female in the show, being promoted above her two white friends, Tracey and Jessie, is seen by her friends as an excuse for companies to “diversify,” rather than well-deserved recognition of her merit and hard work. Oscar, an American citizen of Colombian descent, is so palpably ignored that it seems to break the rule of the stage. His complete silence and everyone’s lack of acknowledgment of his presence make him all the more noteworthy and glaring in the framework of the theater.
Later, Tracey, one of the feistiest, racist, characters in the play, and Oscar are smoking outside the bar. When Oscar tells her that he saw a job posting for her factory at his community center, she adamantly tells him to not apply and leers at the Spanish-written advertisement. The mere rumor of “moving the factory to Mexico” becomes true when Tracey, Jessie, Chris, Jason, and all the other workers are locked out of the factory one day without any forewarned notice. Brucie, Chris’s father, begs his son for spare change when they unexpectedly run into one another.
These moments aren’t aestheticized. Everyone is in plain clothes, without any of the heavy makeup typical to theater. While watching this play, something deep within my heart kept bothering me. Sure, there were ugly, racist words that decorated the stage. There was violence and hurt and pain so visceral that it was hard to watch. There were examples of humans hitting absolute rock bottom. But these are common tropes in literature, film, and songs; I have seen people being broken a thousand times before, and none of those depictions have affected me like this play has.
After a lot of introspection on my ride home, I discovered the root of that invisible itch. It is the itch that hasn’t stopped since the election of 2016, the itch that began the first time I was told I was ‘pretty for an Asian girl,’ the itch that sparked when I was ridiculed at school for my beautifully handmade Korean lunch that my aunt packed me. It is the itch of the other—those who laughed at me for my culture, those who belittled me with their so-called compliments, and those who voted for Trump in the 2016 election. In this town of Reading, Pennsylvania, through the lens of the theater, I met a fraction (and well-represented one at that, as Lynn Nottage spent two years meeting the locals in these broken, industrial towns for research) of the Other, those whom I could never, ever understand. I saw these people as more than ignorant, racist monsters; they were humans who liked to drink and wanted to get by. This empathy for people to whom I never thought I could be sympathetic got me thinking: is their racism and discrimination justifiable because of their humanity? While my immediate, automatic response was no, I wanted to observe and support my reasoning. What I came up with is that racism, like bullying, arises from a place of extreme fear and insecurity in oneself.
If you are a victim of a racist remark or violence, it’s really, really hard to be a compassionate, loving, understanding person towards the perpetrator. When someone has reduced you to your ethnicity, you want to view them as something less than an individual too. I always hated being told that I had to be a bigger person, because I saw no rationale in forgiving, no less being responsible for a racist stranger’s problem and stupidity. And perhaps I emerged from this play more confused and conflicted. I, for one, am not justifying racism in any shape or form. You can cry over spilled milk all you want, but the fact that it’s been spilled doesn’t change. Racism can’t be solved overnight, but in the course of 2 hours and 45 minutes, my own viewpoint on racism shifted. Now, I’m cognizant of the idea that racist projections stem from a place of deeper hatred and fear within oneself. As such, I think I would be more willing to have a dialogues with not only the perpetrators of racist crimes but also a larger audience trying to delve into this topic.
Maybe it’s impossible to break the mob mentality of white-supremacist or neo-Nazi groups. But buying them tickets to Sweat by Lynn Nottage may at least shift their understanding of race, at least a little bit. Maybe it won’t, but the theater forces its audience to listen at least for the allotted time. Perhaps, in that act of listening and observing, some deeper sentiment can arise, whether it be anger, pain, or even regret. In this context, we all ought to do a little more than “appreciate the arts.”