“I got caught up in the riptide, and I couldn’t get back to shore.”

Jessie (Mindy Smith) utters this statement towards the end of Sweat’s first act while lamenting about lost love and lost opportunities.

Quite often life is or becomes much different than what we expect it to be. Aspirations, hopes, plans all swept up into the riptide, and torn asunder. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to get ourself back to shore, albeit not entirely intact.

Whether the riptide manifests itself in the form of a changing economy, a job suddenly vanishing, or the foundation a family has built crumbling to the ground, or a myriad other events, the riptide’s strength tends to claim parts of our identity.

Or amplifies our already engrained biases and fears of those different than us.

Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Mathew Green, the Pulitzer Prize award-winning Sweat offers a very real and honest look at what that riptide can do to a person, and a community as a whole.

Juxtaposed between 2000, at the height of NAFTA’s impact on American industry, and 2008, in which we see the aftermath of what unfolds in 2000, Sweat discusses identity, race, family
traditions in Reading, PA, and how quickly even the closest of friends can end up on divergent paths, as locals watch all they have worked hard for get torn away as industrial corporations cut corners and move out of town. And it does so candidly.

Like most Mathew Green-directed productions, music is quintessential to the story. Green has a knack for curating obscure, but incredibly fitting playlists that only enhance what unfolds on stage. These aren’t just songs to fill silence during scene changes. They function much like the soundtrack of a film informing the tone the story; a neatly placed cherry on the top of strategically built sundae. Green’s selections for Sweat were no different.

Upon entering the theatre, the audience is greeted by a simple wooden bar with a few stools, tables, and a jukebox, reminiscent of your small friendly neighborhood bar. Then the music hits your ears — fortunately from Green’s playlist and not the typical song or two jukeboxes get stuck on — and rounds out the feeling of a welcoming bar.

As wonderful as the musical selection was, the true beauty of the show was found in the stellar performances from the entire cast; top to bottom. The performances only enhanced the script’s ability to provide a peek into normal life. The struggles and hopes. Failures and regrets. The pain and anger.

As I watched the cast bring these characters to life, I couldn’t help but think they were all people we all could know or love.

Mindy Smith (Jessie), Chris Clevidence Taber (Tracey), Evelyn Reynolds (Cynthia) offer stunning performances — Smith and Reynolds are first time Station performers — as a trio of friends whose friendship disintegrates as Cynthia is chosen for a promotion, and more and more workers at the local plant are locked out. All three build incredibly real characters through thoughtful portrayals of those who endure the pain and betrayal of the only job they’ve known leaving. Taber’s Tracey, especially, offers a look into how implicit narrow-mindedness and bias comes out strong when those different than you “tread” (in the person’s eye, not mine) on a fearful person’s livelihood.

Involved in this dialogue is Kvn Tajzea (Brucie), Cedric Jones (Chris), Matt Christman (Jason), and Luis Alcantara (Oscar). While Brucie is the man who has fallen on hard times and given himself over to addiction, Tajzea presents him as a man who has fought hard to hold up the weight of the world, doubly heavy as a black man who already has to fight even harder, but is broken because doing everything right has lead to everything wrong.

Jones and Christman shine as prime examples of how quickly life can change and how hard it is to break free when a small town and hard labor is the only thing you know. As the story unfolds, both portray two young people we watch slowly get pulled out further and further into the riptide until it’s too late. You watch them fight to make a better life for themselves, to only have it go awry because of despair and hopelessness. This was Jones' second appearance and the Station and Christman's first — both Jones and Christman are two young forces to watch out for.

Matt Hester’s Stan was endearing and all of the best tropes of your friendly neighborhood bartender wrapped up into a neatly bearded package. He brought joy to the story when everything seemed grey and dismal. Hester made you care, made you hope for everyone that entered his bar. He terrificly portrayed a person that we all know far too well: the person who truly hurts, but hides it through making sure others do not feel the same pain he feels. 

One of my favorite performances came from Alcantara. As Oscar, his words were few but when they were spoken you listened. Alcantara played Oscar with depth and honesty that made him, I believe, one of the stand outs in the cast. While Stan was the voice of reason, Alcantara’s Oscar voiced the truth they all needed to hear, but could not stomach: that he is no different than them, but no matter what, they would always fear him because of his ethnicity.

Lastly, Jace Jamison’s Evan, although spending the least amount of time on stage, played an important in the story reminding us how much holding onto our shame can only increase the pain we endure, especially when finally getting back to shore. Jamison’s performance was subtle and subdued, yet brought power to the stage. I hung on every word he said, and could feel the hope and peace he was trying to help Jason and Chris find.

The one and only complaint I have is the penultimate fight scene. The choreography in of itself was fine. One could feel the storms of emotions that lead to the fight build up. The execution, however, was lacking. It was far from awful, but in the end felt a bit anticlimactic. The cast look as though they were holding back, as if it was the first time they ran the choreography at full speed for the first time and were scared. Yet, when the dust settles it does not distract from the story.

If theatre, or art as a whole for that matter, is meant to be an ongoing conversation — a conversation in which we are faced with our own faults and must be held accountable for them or a means by which we are confronted with society’s issues — then this production of Sweat hits all of the marks.

Sweat
Station Theatre
223 N Broadway
Urbana
August 8-11, 15-18 at 7:30 p.m.
August 12th, 3 p.m.

Photo provided by Mathew Green.