The main themes in Sweat are race and class in the workplace, the effect of work life on the family, and economies and individuals.
- Race and class in the workplace: Nottage explores the presence of racial bias and discrimination in the workplace as the factory promotes Cynthia, who is Black, and gives preference to Latino employees.
- The effect of work life on the family: Factory workers Jason and Chris are separated from their mothers, Tracey and Cynthia, when they are incarcerated following their fight with Oscar.
- Economies and individuals: The play traces the harmful effects of economic downturns and recessions on American lives.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Race and Class in the Workplace
Lynn Nottage’s 2015 play Sweat centers on the events in the lives of several people who all work at the same factory, Olsteads, and are facing layoffs and downsizing. The playwright shows how owners manipulate individual efforts to advance in order to destroy solidarity and instead foster suspicions, mistrust, and rifts between friends. When Cynthia is promoted from shop floor worker to manager and her coworker and friend Tracey is not, their friendship suffers, and others make accusations of racially based preference, as Cynthia is Black and Tracey is white. We see how the plant uses ethnicity to divide workers in the case of Oscar, who is Latino. He finds out through his Latino network that the plant is hiring, which the owners have hidden from the other workers. He learns that the cost of being hired is to become a scab when the others go out on strike.
The Effect of Work Life on the Family
The employees’ work lives and decisions about organizing likewise affect their children. Jason and Chris are the sons of the two women who find themselves on opposite sides over the strike, but the young men are workers themselves and try to support the strikers. Oscar and his coworker Stan (the bartender at the bar where the characters all hang out) are attacked in a demonstration. Stan is severely injured, and the youths are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. These fights over workers’ rights have claimed large parts of the lives of all three men, and their mothers must await their sons’ release, knowing their criminal record and their experience of incarceration will stay with them forever. Jason, in particular, is notably altered by his time in prison, where he becomes a white supremacist.
Economies and Individuals
Sweat charts the connection between the broader economic trends that animate and shape American society and the lives of individual Americans who are affected by those trends. Although such connections are often indirect, they arise through tangible realities such as corporate downsizing and non-union hiring practices.
Nottage began to write the play in 2011 and set its events during two notable economic downturns: the 2000 to 2001 recession following the dot com bubble and the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. In light of these background economic trends, the play has a distinctive atmosphere of precarity. Characters are saddened and enraged in the face of wage cuts, and conflicts erupt between them as they struggle to navigate their lives in the face of diminishing opportunities.
The play’s setting offers an appropriate stage on which to explore this theme. Nottage chose the Rust Belt town of Reading, Pennsylvania, because at the time of the play’s composition, Reading was the poorest town of its size in the United States. In a sense, Reading represents a broader diminishment of the American middle class, a sector of the population whose once-reliable sources of work—such as in factories and mills—have been in decline in recent years. Sweat is about the private toll of this great decline.