Last Updated September 5, 2023.
American playwright Lynn Nottage won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her 2015 play Sweat. The play also won the 2017 Obie Award for Playwrighting and garnered three 2017 Tony Award nominations and two 2017 Drama Desk Award nominations.
Concerned with events in the early twenty-first century, Sweat nonetheless retains some elements of realism. A notable departure is the use of two time periods, 2000 and 2008, which forces the reader to guess at the reasons for events that occur in the later period but are presented first. Nottage emphasizes that the play is intended to be performed, initially through some notes about how the dialogue should be spoken. These indications reflect the slice-of-life approach of the characters’ interactions, many of which occur in a neighborhood bar. Some of the dialogue is overlapping, the way people actually speak. Nottage also recommends that the dialogue be spoken with
the free-flowing velocity of a bar conversation: people step on each other’s thoughts, but also occasionally find moments of silence and introspection.
Those silent, introspective moments are key to the play’s plausibility, as the specific events the characters are living through and the difficult period overall encourage both action and contemplation.
Nottage tells the intersecting stories of numerous characters from several families in distinct scenes, often presenting the characters with little or no context so that the reader must figure out for themself what prior events they are referring to and what their relationship is with that other character. As the play opens, Nottage takes this approach with Jason and Chris, as each of them separately speaks with their mutual parole officer, Evan. Their separate scenes with him, which cover the same ground, independently tell the story of their earlier friendship and offer hints at the charges that landed them in jail, from which they both have recently been released. This type of structure creates dramatic tension and keeps the audience’s interest.
In the scenes from 2000, before the young men get into trouble, Nottage sets much of the action in a fictional bar in the characters’ working-class town of Reading, Pennsylvania, where people who obviously are friends, long-time acquaintances, or customary drinking buddies share drinks and stories. Those who are closest and see each other almost every day, being both friends and coworkers, fill in the minor characters on the important facts of their lives. For example, from Cynthia we learn not only of her off-again, on-again relationship with Brucie, but that some of Brucie’s problems are attributable to getting laid off from work at Olsteads. Nottage builds the audience’s sympathy with the workers by giving us insights into their personal lives, rather than situating the play at work, where their conversations would be constrained. As the characters use racially charged language when talking to each other, we see as well the tensions beneath the banter. A limited amount of foreshadowing also alerts the audience to the conflicts that will erupt into the violence that draws Jason and Chris into the fight that lands them in jail.