by Lynn Nottage

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Who is the protagonist of Sweat?

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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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