by Lynn Nottage

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Student Question

What does Sweat suggest about racism and racial tension in the United States?

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Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat makes statements about racism and racial tension in the United States as elements of employment practices, workplace relationships, friendship, and physical violence. Nottage shows how employers exploit racial tension to set workers against each other and how friendships are destroyed because of racially-related disagreements that turn into violent conflicts. The results have lasting effects on people, including injury and incarceration.

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In her play Sweat, Lynn Nottage makes several statements about the dominant roles that racism and racial tension play in U.S. society. Two key areas she considers are employers’ use of race as a way to create divisions between workers and how the workers’ views of race affect their relationships. Nottage presents the difficulties in maintaining friendships between people of different races and shows how those challenges can deteriorate into violent confrontations. Among the results that Nottage presents are cases of permanent injury and of involvement in the criminal justice system, including incarceration and post-release difficulties.

Sweat takes place in a factory that is trying both to reduce expenses and to comply with legal requirements. Tracey and Cynthia are workplace friends; Tracey is white and Cynthia is black. Their whole relationship is damaged by the employers’ apparent use of affirmative action in promotion decisions. The owners meet a workers’ strike over wages with the hiring of non-union workers, including Latinos such as Oscar. Through the resulting violence, a white worker, Stan, becomes disabled. The friendship between the women’s sons is destroyed after they are arrested and serve time in prison, where Tracey’s son Jason becomes a white supremacist. After their release, their future prospects are greatly diminished by having a record.

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