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Who are these Trump voters? For a thoughtful portrait, turn to playwright Lynn Nottage's 'Sweat'

Who are these Trump voters? For a thoughtful portrait, turn to playwright Lynn Nottage's 'Sweat'
Michelle Wilson, left, James Colby and Johanna Day in "Sweat," the new play by Lynn Nottage running at the Public Theater in New York. (Joan Marcus)

The question that will be on everyone's mind for the foreseeable future is how did Donald Trump, a businessman with a record of bankruptcies and a reality TV star with a flair for demagoguery, become the next president of the United States.

The answer isn't likely to be found on cable news or in a newspaper. The media's coverage of the campaign was fixated on the horse race and the clash of flawed personalities, leaving little time to explain the urgent issues of the day to a distracted citizenry.

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Where can we turn for enlightenment now that the toxic political Super Bowl is over? Is there anyone to lead us from the simplistic sound bites that have relegated us into enemy camps?

Enter Lynn Nottage, a distinguished American playwright who set out to better understand the anger of today's betrayed working class. Her latest play, "Sweat," which is having its New York premiere at the Public Theater, transports us to a Pennsylvania manufacturing town rocked by the seismic effects of globalization — a locale that is nearly as culturally distant to elitist urban audiences as the Congolese brothel of her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Ruined."

"Sweat," directed by Kate Whoriskey (who staged the world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year), grew out of interviews the playwright and her collaborators conducted in Reading, Pa., one of the poorest cities in the U.S., according to census data. The statistics are stark, but Nottage wanted to know the people behind the statistics and she has built a meaty — and acutely politically relevant — drama around what she learned.

The main setting for "Sweat" is a blue-collar bar, where workers come in after their shifts to gripe, gossip and get blotto. The play takes place largely in 2000, just as the effects of NAFTA are starting to ripple through this factory town — bad news for the workers but a boon for bar receipts.

Stan (James Colby), the bartender of this no-frills establishment, says to Tracey (Johanna Day), a worker at the local steel tubing plant, "You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico, whatever, it's this NAFTA … ." To Tracey, NAFTA "sounds like a laxative," but she will become intimately acquainted with the consequences of trade deals and globalization as the play jumps back and forth between 2000 and 2008, another watershed in the life of this economically battered community.

Nottage, an African American playwright, never loses sight of the humanity of her white working-class characters even when the strain of their economic problems draws to the surface their latent racism. She's alert to the way the lack of "human decency" by employers has compromised the values and ideals of their employees, who have come to define themselves by their jobs.

"Three generations of loyalty to the same company," Stan complains to a patron about the way he was treated after being injured. "This is America, right? You'd think that would mean something. They behave like they're doing you a ... favor."

But Nottage isn't simply writing to explain the behavior of a certain segment of Donald Trump voters. She's analyzing the way economic pressures and changing demographics have, as this election has dismayingly shown us, pitted communities against one another.

Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), an African American friend and coworker of Tracey's, is tired of working on the floor of the plant. Her middle-aged body is starting to break down, but she's also smart and ambitious and realizes that there's no reason she shouldn't apply for a higher position.

Cynthia's promotion, however, turns out to be a mixed blessing. As the union loses power and the company bosses take an increasingly hard line with the workers, she will be seen as a traitor for appearing to side with management.

"Sweat" doesn't leave out the younger generation — those who roll their eyes at the idea of college, like Jason (Will Pullen), and those who are still looking for an educational way out of this manufacturing dead end, like Chris (Khris Davis). What happens to these two young men loosely structures the play, which can admittedly feel more reportorial than plotted — a symptom perhaps of the work's quasi-journalistic roots.

At various points, the socioeconomic context threatens to dwarf the drama. Nottage's writing falls into expositional phases that provide the actors with plenty of realistic detail and local color but these passages slow momentum. (Whoriskey's lived-in production, it must be said, is first rate.)

The play also enunciates its points a little too baldly in places. Tracey pays homage to her grandfather's "solid, worker hands" in the talking head language of a Michael Moore documentary.

More prosaic than "Ruined," which was modeled on Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children," "Sweat" invites an audience to spend time with characters when they're off the clock — to observe them in their everyday flow as the noose tightens around their necks.

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The play gains speed as it heads toward its explosive conclusion. Oscar (Carlo Albán), a Colombian American busboy who lurks in the shadows of the bar, takes on a larger role that will fatefully intersect with the lives of Jason and Chris. It's hard to talk about the plot without spoiling the surprises, but suffice it to say that Nottage touches on immigration, the alt-right, addiction and prison in ways that feel disturbingly organic to her dramatic portrait of contemporary America.

Much has been made about the timeliness of "Sweat," the way it sheds light on the national schisms that have made this election such a horror to live through and the platform it has provided embittered workers who have lost their foothold in the middle class. Nottage helps us see that though this community may feel abandoned and culturally isolated, it isn't all that disconnected from the multicultural patchwork that is the United States.

The economically disenfranchised of all races and ethnicities, it turns out, have a good deal in common, which is the reason politicians and corporate bosses are so intent on stoking conflicts and inflaming resentments. A fractured opposition is much more easily manipulated and subdued.

"Sweat" roils with anger and frustration, but these feelings are put in the service of a public good: fostering solidarity where polarization has grown most extreme. The play may not be an enduring masterpiece, but it offers a path toward healing for a nation riven by a torturous election. We would all be well served to follow Nottage's compassionately wise example and venture outside our comfort zones and unplug our ears.

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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