Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat delves into multi-layered, complex relationships among numerous factory employees. Her play also joins their stories with those of members of their families and community that are affected by the factory labor conditions. Because it is an ensemble work, no single person emerges as the primary protagonist or antagonist. One of the points the author makes is the ripple effect that can result from even a single decision within the workplace.
While some workers are pitted against each other and even end up in violent confrontations, Nottage makes the audience aware of their relative powerlessness in the company town. The factory’s owners, who do not actually appear as characters, could collectively be considered an antagonist. More generally, within Nottage’s sharp-edged social critique, capitalism can be seen as an antagonistic force in that she paints it in a negative light.
Owing to the promotional scheme that the factory puts in place, interpersonal and inter-family conflicts become especially pronounced between former friends Cynthia and Tracey and their respective sons Chris and Jason. The young men’s immaturity feeds their anger, which erupts into violence. Other layers of conflict pit management against workers, and pro-union workers against the unionization opponents and the strikebreakers. Racial divisions also become pronounced, involving not only Black and white workers but also Latino workers.