by Lynn Nottage

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Protagonist and Antagonist in "Sweat"


The protagonist in "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston is Delia Jones, a hardworking and oppressed washerwoman. The antagonist is her abusive husband, Sykes Jones, who torments Delia and ultimately meets his demise due to his own malicious actions.

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Who is the protagonist of Sweat?

Lynn Nottage’s play is an ensemble piece in which numerous characters play central roles as time advances. The play also takes place during two different time periods, during which the setting and related important action switch from the factory to the bar. Some apparently minor characters from the earlier time, 2000, are shown as occupying more important roles eight years later. Nottage seems to be encouraging the audience to engage with a variety of individuals and to empathize with their situations. Her success in humanizing characters who do not seem especially appealing is one of the playwright’s significant contributions.

Two characters whose significance changes are Jason and Chris. Before the strike, they were friends and the sons of two colleagues at the factory. They had different aspirations but saw their goals as parallel, with neither young man assuming a superior attitude. One violent bar fight, however, derails both their plans, and they end up in prison. There, Jason becomes part of a white supremacist group, so that when they regain their freedom, no friendship is possible. Although Nottage traces their paths through the play, neither young man consistently commands the audience’s attention.

Another character whose importance changes is Oscar. In the earlier period, although he clearly needs a job as much as anyone else, his decision to cross the picket line makes him an unsympathetic outsider. When the action resumes, however, he has not only left the factory to work in the bar but also has taken on the responsibility of caring for Stan. This development renders him a complex character who is generous rather than selfish, as he originally seemed.

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Who is the antagonist in Sweat?

Let's begin by defining “antagonist.” In literature, an antagonist is someone who gets in the way of the main character or main characters, someone who stands as an opposite to them. An antagonist is often, but not always, a villain of sorts who plots against people or puts up road blocks to keep them from meeting their goals.

With this definition in mind, let's think about Lynn Nottage's play Sweat. There are several important characters in this play but none of them really fits the definition of antagonist. Even though at times they are hostile towards each other, they are mostly on the same side. The antagonist in this case, then, is not a person but a company. The employer of most of the characters is called Olstead's, and it is constantly getting in the way of the characters in one fashion or another. Stan was hurt on the job years ago as were other people the characters know. Cynthia gets a promotion over Tracey in a way Tracey thinks is unfair. Then the company lists the names of its first round of layoffs. The US plant is too big, and it can find cheaper labor in Mexico, so it is moving much of its operation there. It also begins hiring Mexican Americans in its US plant to cut down on labor costs. The company also cuts pay and benefits for the US workers it plans to keep, and when the employees protest, it locks them out.

Indeed, Olstead's stands in the way of the success of the play's other characters, and it seems to plot against them, putting up road blacks to keep them from meeting their goals. It creates conflict, even violence, among them as they struggle to deal with the loss of their jobs and the loss of their dreams.

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Who is the antagonist in the play Sweat by Lynn Nottage?  

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.

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