Cocalico Corner: A lot of ‘Sweat’ing going on

By on June 21, 2017
Cocalico Corner Donna Reed

This past Saturday I journeyed with a busload of my fellow Berks Countians to Broadway to see Reading.

Yup. You read that correctly. We left Reading to see Reading.

Nearly 50 of us traveled to the Big Apple to get a perspective of life in our city offered via the Tony-nominated play ‘Sweat.’ Its writer, Lynn Nottage, received the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

It was extraordinarily hot and humid for a mid-June day. Slogging through the crowded streets of mid-town Manhattan, a sudden downpour along the way delivered many drenched to the performance venue, the once-notorious Studio 54.

The play, as many of you likely know, tells the story of unionized steelworkers who, despite loyalty on the factory line for years (and generations in some cases) fall victim, starting in 2000, to the ravages of NAFTA, the recession of 2008, a strike and subsequent lockout and then the final plant closure.

Nottage spent a lot of time in Reading, beginning in 2011, and interviewed many residents. She was attracted by a news report citing Reading as the second poorest city of its size in the country. The playwright got first-hand accounts, often uncomfortable, of the toll that the changing economy and social norms, as well as shifting demographics, had taken on the city. And, the result — the play ‘Sweat’ — does not paint the prettiest of pictures.

 

Reading City Councilors John Slifko (left) and Donna Reed (second from right) and state Sen. Judy Schwank (right) meet with Sweat cast members Will Pullen and Kris Davis after the June 17 matinee. Photo courtesy of Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz

Reading City Councilors John Slifko (left) and Donna Reed (second from right) and state Sen. Judy Schwank (right) meet with Sweat cast members Will Pullen and Kris Davis after the June 17 matinee. Photo courtesy of Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz

Those of us traveling to New York had a relatively clear idea of what we were to see from the many months of publicity, local and national, ‘Sweat’ received. A few of us had spent some time with Nottage last Tuesday evening when she was in Reading for a reception. Some had friends and relatives who had seen the play. Among them and part of our group was former Mayor Tom McMahon, who saw its first incarnation in 2015 in Portland, as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions series exploring crucial moments in our nation’s history. ‘Sweat’ went on to play in Washington, D.C., and in an off-Broadway venue before its run at Studio 54.

The central figures of ‘Sweat’ are three women and four men, of two generations, who had believed their good union jobs at a local steel manufacturer would last forever. Their post-work gathering spot, a local bar operated by one of their former colleagues disabled by a work accident for which he was grudgingly compensated, is a second home for these co-workers, some of whom really are family. The barkeep employs a young Latino man, born in the U.S. of a Colombian émigré family, as a busboy.

The progression of the years and the attendant economic challenges tear at the fabric of these characters’ status, friendships, and mutual regard. The unraveling includes expressions of racism, substance abuse and addiction, poverty, violence — and, on the upbeat — a short but quietly stunning display of grace.

Nottage laces her characters’ comments with a proliferation of f-bombs, something I found a bit disconcerting, but ultimately realistic to some of the tougher circumstances of my town.

The barroom set of the play is based on an 80-plus year Reading establishment called Mike’s Tavern, located in the Riverside section, just south of First Energy Stadium. It certainly was a long-time home base for thousands of after-work drinks by hundreds of employees of the nearby now-defunct Parish Frame Division of Dana Corp., as well as the still-thriving Carpenter Technology Corp. That setting alone made the performance far more visceral for me. I could imagine my late uncle quaffing a beer (or several) at the bar with his pals from the forge many years ago, secure in the job that provided them all safe retirements. A generation later, workers like him wouldn’t be so lucky.

The night before we saw ‘Sweat,’ I paid a visit to Mike’s Tavern, located in my council district, to hear my Lancaster Farming colleague Eric Hurlock perform with his folk group Tin Bird Choir. The old Mike’s crowd has given way to aficionados of various music genres as well as craft beer fans. But one thing remains constant — the decor of the old row house that looks much the same as it did when my uncle was in his working prime in the 1950s.

The juxtaposition of the two experiences — the bitterness of the old Reading portrayed in ‘Sweat’ and the happy atmosphere of Friday night at Mike’s made for some serious contemplation on the ride back from Manhattan.

Our group had the great good fortune to spend some one-on-one time with the ‘Sweat’ cast following the matinee. My council colleagues, Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz, who organized the trip, and John Slifko and I presented the troupe with a commendation which was received, to our surprise, with some emotion.

The actors fielded many questions and offered their takes on Reading which they visited earlier in the spring to deliver a free public reading of ‘Sweat’ at the Reading Area Community College Miller Center for the Arts.

To Nottage’s credit, she is playing continuing tribute to the people of our city — this time with an eye to the present and a more hopeful future — with a special endeavor entitled “This is Reading.”

This multimedia presentation will be featured for three consecutive weekends, beginning July 14, at the refurbished Franklin Street Station in downtown Reading.

What is known about it so far is that it will marry live performances and visual media — in a six-pronged approach — both on the interior and exterior of the station.

Nottage has said publicly many times that it was hard for her to shake the feeling she got from her time in Reading doing those pre-‘Sweat’ interviews — the sense of hardship, longing for that better past, and hopelessness about the future. The point of “This is Reading” is a counter to that, showing the hope and possibilities that exist with the hope that it may help bring more joy and unity to the city.

Nottage, along with her team, will do this as a service to the people of the city portrayed so bleakly on Broadway throughout the spring.

So innovative is ‘This is Reading’ that Nottage has already traveled to parts of the country explaining it. Indeed, last weekend she was in Greece doing just that. Her goal is to make the ‘This is Reading’ experience one that can be mirrored in communities far and wide.

I look forward to seeing ‘This is Reading.’ I know among the many citizens Nottage and her team are featuring in this presentation will be familiar faces — from the city’s established movers and shakers to new folks with roots in Latin America and Asia to the homeless souls who so many scuttle by each day. I’m hoping that when these folks see their images projected on the inside and outside walls, they will come to realize that no matter how different, they are all the same at heart, one community.

Okay, now that you’ve read this column, you may be thinking: What’s this got to do with Cocalico?

Well, here’s the thing — we are all connected. Reading is just 15 miles or so away. What happens there and anywhere nearby is something we should all be aware of, even if we can’t relate personally to those specific experiences.

The images and words of ‘Sweat’ are going to stay with me and other theatergoers long after it closes its Broadway run on Sunday.

The question it challenges is this: “What are you going to do about it?”

The answer remains to be seen, but the potential for positive change is in us all.

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