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Datebook: Rust Belt Drama Leaves Workers In A 'Sweat'

steel mill
Jo Guldi
Flickr/Creative Commons
The closing of a steel mill slices a wound through workers lives in "Sweat."

A shifting economic landscape leads to layoffs and desperation in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Sweat.” 

Lori Adams directs the play, which opens Nov. 8 and runs through Nov. 16 in Westhoff Theatre at Illinois State University. The show follows a group of friends between 2000 and 2008, tracing the demise of the factory in which they work – and the demise of the personal relationships forged there. Gritty and authentic, “Sweat” tackles racism, addiction, crime and loss.

Adams confessed that she was drawn to the timeliness of the play.

Lori Adams
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
The subject matter of "Sweat" hits home with director Lori Adams.

“Lynn Nottage moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, for two and a half years because she wanted to get the real guts of this story, the entire idea of NAFTA, industry moving out of the country overnight, and the breaking up of unions.”

The plot centers around two women, Cynthia, who is black and Tracy, who is white, as well as their sons, Jason and Chris. 

“They all work at the steel mill as union members.  Overnight, they get locked out and they strike. But by the time it all ends up, the company has moved all the jobs to Mexico.” 

The resulting loss of the mill triggers a devastating event with powerful reverberations. 

“It’s fascinating to see the decisions that are made,” Adams said. “The friendships they have forged and were solid before this happened are blown apart” 

Adams own personal connection to the characters in “Sweat” compelled her to bring it to the stage. 

“At this point in my life, I want to do something that matters. I grew up in Nebraska, my parents were working class, all my family were working class. I was the first person to go to college. There’s a big part of the world’s view of these people that I understand on some level. I sorta get them.” 

As director, Adams has brought her deep respect for the blue-collar work ethic to this production, admiring their loyalty even as she succumbed to sorrow at the injustice of the situation.

“We do not take care enough of the people that sometimes need it the most.” 

“When you feel like a forgotten person – and I don’t think there’s a female alive that has not sometime in their life felt like a forgotten person – this play is about people who felt like they were forgotten. And in some ways were forgotten or are forgotten.  I guess I want to bring them into the light so we don’t forget them.”

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.