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NAFTA, brutally honest bar talk – and a lot of heart in 'Sweat' at Community Players

A white woman wearing a red checkers flannel stands leaning disapprovingly over a Black woman in overalls and with a bandana over her hair seated at a red cafe table. In the background, two onlookers scowl at the scene.
Community Players Theatre
The cast of "Sweat," showing at Community Players through Jan. 15

Liquor has a way of getting people to tell the truth.

That’s according to Lynn Nottage, whose play called “Sweat,” focuses on union steelworkers in their after-hours hangout. The play is being produced for the first time by Community Players Theatre and runs two weekends at the Bloomington venue.

While many in the audience, cast and crew of Community Players Theatre gravitate to fun, flashy musicals, Len Childers is drawn to the heavier stuff. The trained actor works as a school social worker during the day; he spends his nights as a member of multiple community theaters around town. Childers’ first show with Community Players was the 2017 production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”

“Theaters that do big, fluffy musicals, a lot of the time, stick to only that,” he said. “One of the reasons I keep coming back (to Community Players) is because they do shows like ‘August: Osage County,’ and they’re willing to do ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’”

Most recently, Childers served as producer and dramaturg on Community Players’ groundbreaking production of “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2021. And now, he takes the director’s chair for the troupe’s premiere of Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Sweat.”

On the surface, “Sweat” is about three friends in a bar — but it is so much more than that.

The story centers on factory workers struggling to make ends meet in the post-industrial Rust Belt town of Reading, Pennsylvania. Assumptions about race, privilege and access threaten three women’s decades-long friendship when Cynthia, a Black woman, receives a promotion over her white colleagues. Race, class, corporate greed and addiction are pervasive themes throughout “Sweat.”

Nottage spent several years in Reading researching her piece. Childers said the setting represents small town America and blue-collar jobs generally that were affected by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that exported many U.S. manufacturing jobs to Mexico.

“These corporations were saying, hey, now that they’ve opened up trade with Mexico and Canada, we don’t have to keep workers here," said Childers. "Suddenly, jobs were disappearing. The unions were becoming much weaker than they had ever been before.”

But “Sweat” focuses on the one-two punch delivered not only from the decline of industry after NAFTA, but also the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession — a new reality in the face of an increasingly unreachable American Dream. In that context, “Sweat” dives deeply into racial and ethnic stereotypes and the harm caused by implicit bias.

“Lynn Nottage is exploring what it means to be an American,” Childers said. “Who gets opportunities as an American? ... There’s an assumption that if you’re a Black person, you’re getting opportunities because you’re a minority and not because of your skills or ability."

It’s tough material, but Childers said there are aspects of “Sweat” that will appeal even to those who love Community Players only for its "fluffy musicals."

“Lynn Nottage did a great job pulling out comedy," he said. "There is comedy. There is heart. There’s a lot of brutal truth and honesty, and there’s a lot of masking. There are people that are just trying to get by and doing the best they can. Sometimes, the best they can isn’t good enough, but they’re trying.”

“Sweat” runs Jan. 6-15 at Community Players Theatre, 201 Robinhood Lane, Bloomington. The show is recommended for patrons 18 and up, and tickets are available at communityplayers.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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