Sweat, at the Goodman, reconnects me with my roots

Bewilderment with Trump voters is a staple of the conversations my friends and I have. Who are these people? How can they think that Trump cares about them? How can they stay with him? Why can’t they see?

I was as likely as anyone to shrug my shoulders when someone asked, “Who are these people?,” even though I come from the white working class, Trump’s base. Both of my grandfathers were laborers in the steel mill in Joliet. My dad rotated shifts at Commonwealth Edison, one week 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., the next 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the next 3 to 11 p.m., a schedule that left him sleep deprived and unavailable for many family activities.

Lifted up and out by the opportunity of college, I stopped identifying with those who labored with their hands rather than their brains. Living in a big city, patronizing theaters and ethnic restaurants, reading novels and traveling, I found little in common with the generation just before.

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Sweat, which I saw Saturday at the Goodman, reminded me that “these people” are my people, and I owe them more than the shrug of my shoulders.

As have we all, I have read lots of analyses of Trump’s base. The white working class feels neglected, ignored, left behind. Their towns are dying because manufacturing jobs have left. They blame immigrants for taking jobs away and are threatened by the country’s growing diversity.

In place of these abstractions, Nottage shows us credible people and makes us care about their plight. Sweat’s characters are long-time employees of a Reading, Pennsylvania, factory, working on the line where some of their fathers and grandfathers also labored. They expect job security and assured retirements — but the company initiates layoffs, drastically cuts wages, and finally, after the union strikes, locks out the workers.

Nottage doesn’t portray them as saints. They are intolerant and tribal. A white woman believes race is behind an African American woman’s promotion. They all are furious at a Colombian tavern busser who takes a second job as a scab. Nottage, who is black, is able to create empathy for her characters without excusing their bigotry. Just because they have prejudices doesn’t mean they don’t have real grievances. It’s good to remember that when we are inclined to attribute Trump’s appeal to racism alone.

Leaving the Goodman, I thought about a theme that runs through Sweat — the bargain that employer and employee make, or used to make. One of the assumptions of the play’s characters is that employees stay with the company in return for steady work, a decent paycheck, and a pension. It’s something that my dad, who worked for Com Ed for 31 years before retiring, preached to us. Fortunately, the company didn’t betray him, and he’s had a comfortable pension for an incredible 38 years.

Before she started writing Sweat, Nottage wanted to interview people living on the margin. She chose to go to Reading, the poorest city of its size in the country, because it had lost a third of its manufacturing jobs and had become majority Hispanic. After Sweat opened on Broadway in 2017, Nottage returned to Reading, reinterviewing its residents, including some who had voted for Trump. “When you come and you hear these stories, you feel incredibly guilty,” Nottage said. “That’s the reason I wanted to come back. You can’t just run away.”

These days many of my conversations end in the hope that Trump will be defeated in 2020. But whenever he is gone and we’re feeling relieved, our national nightmare won’t be all behind us. “These people” will still be here, and they will need our attention.

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ANTI-TRUMP COMMENTS: 57TH IN AN ONGOING SERIES

“From what is known of Mueller’s report . . . we can’t conclude that the president is a criminal. . . . But we have abundant proof that he is the worst person ever to become president, as well as the least competent and conscientious president ever.” — Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune columnist

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