September 29, 2008. In the news, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen 778.68 points—the worst single-day decline in stock market history. In a parole office, Jason, who has a black eye and whose face is covered in white supremacist tattoos, sits with Evan, his African American parole officer. Evan asks some questions about Jason’s employment and living situation, and Jason gives reluctant, one-word responses. Evan manages to fish out that Jason has gotten a job making soft pretzels and is living at a local church shelter.
Nottage’s choice to begin each act with a news headline sets up the idea that Sweat is a play in conversation with the broader economic, social, and political events happening during the play’s timeline. In particular, the inclusion of financial developments like the stock market decline orient the audience to the 2008 Great Recession, which had dire financial consequences for ordinary Americans—and particularly for struggling people like Jason. Though what Jason did to end up serving a prison sentence hasn’t yet been revealed, it’s clear that he’s racist and distrustful of authority—characteristics that will surely cause conflict between him and Evan.
Jason begins to fidget, and Evan asks him if he’s going to tell him what happened. Jason continues to be uncooperative, which angers Evan—he doesn’t want to be here any more than Jason does. Evan tells Jason that he isn’t playing around and threatens to make Jason’s life difficult by reporting that he’s defiant and confrontational. Then, Evan repeats his question about what happened, and Jason responds that he didn’t do anything. Evan counters this by asking if Jason gave himself a black eye and a cut lip, and Jason admits that someone sucker-punched him.
At this point, Jason doesn’t appear regretful about whatever crime he committed, nor is he interested in improving his behavior. Rather, it seems he’s a rather hateful person (given his white supremacist tattoos) who’s angry at both himself and others. Jason is stuck in a cycle of defiance and denial, still putting himself in violent situations that risk him violating his parole.
Evan continues to question Jason and slowly drag information out of him, piecing together that a biker punched Jason in the bathroom of Loco’s (where Jason knows he’s not supposed to go) for looking at his girlfriend. Still, Jason maintains that he didn’t do anything. Evan asks what the results will say if he drug-tests Jason’s urine, and Jason responds that he’s telling the truth even if Evan doesn’t believe him. Jason refuses to pee into the cup, and they get into a heated exchange. Finally, Jason erupts, calling Evan an “asshole” and yelling, “Fuck you, nigga!”
Again, Jason doesn’t seem particularly remorseful: he refuses to take responsibility for his actions and own up to the fact that he went somewhere he shouldn’t have and associated himself with the wrong people. Lashing out at Evan with a racist slur further highlights how angry and hateful Jason is—he seems to be channeling his personal frustrations with his life into racial animosity against innocent people like Evan.
Evan stares Jason down, and Jason halfheartedly repeats “Fuck you!” Evan again orders Jason to pick up the cup, but Jason breaks and begs Evan to give him a break since he just got a job. Evan drops the issue and switches back to asking if there’s anything Jason wants to tell him. Jason responds that he’s following the rules, but Evan, incredulous, asks Jason if he wants to end up in prison again. He advises Jason to get rid of his offensive tattoos and openly admits that they make him want to knock Jason out.
The halfhearted way in which Jason yells at Evan further suggests that his hostility and racism toward others is at least partially a front for his own self-hatred. Regardless, Jason’s tattoos and use of racial slurs are highly inflammatory and understandably create animosity between him and Evan. Jason’s plea about keeping his (likely minimum-wage) job suggests that he's struggling to make ends meet—another potential contributing factor to his misplaced anger and prejudice.
Evan continues asking Jason what’s going on even as Jason keeps resisting—he’s not going to let Jason off the hook. Finally, Jason reveals that he recently ran into Chris; to his own surprise, he becomes emotional at this admission. Evan asks Jason what he’s going to do, since Chris is out in the world and isn’t going anywhere. But Jason doesn’t know how to handle this—when he was in prison, he tried to repress everything that happened with Chris.
Jason’s rare show of emotion implies that Chris was someone he was close with and that he deeply regrets how things transpired between them. Jason’s admission that he tried to put what happened with Chris out of his mind perhaps suggests that he actually is remorseful about his actions—he’s just afraid to show it.
Evan turns around, and the scene switches: he’s now in a parole meeting with Chris, an African American man. Chris, visibly nervous, tells Evan that things have been tough and that he hasn’t been sleeping well. He’s struggling to relate to others and feels like he’s always talking in circles. Chris has been attempting to get some clarity by attending prayer meetings at the church rectory where he’s living. Chris tells Evan that he’s discouraged by how low-paying the jobs he’s been applying to are—and by the “barbed-wire fence” of “that damn question” on the applications. Chris is eight credits short of completing a bachelor’s degree—he needs to earn some money and get his life together before he can finish, but Evan is encouraging about this plan.
Unlike Jason, Chris is straightforward about how guilt is affecting him as a parolee: his wellbeing is suffering, and his churchgoing implies that he’s looking for forgiveness and a sense of meaning. His reference to “that damn question” that’s like a “barbed-wire fence” suggests that he’s having trouble getting hired due to the question on most job applications about felony convictions. Chris’s unrealized goals in this regard are clearly contributing to the shame and psychological turmoil he's experiencing as an ex-convict.
Evan points out that Chris seems anxious, and Chris replies that he’s angry with himself. He pauses introspectively before admitting that he recently saw Jason. Chris was surprised by how different Jason looked—Chris had encountered the Aryan Brotherhood in prison but was nonetheless unsettled by Jason’s white supremacist tattoos.
Again, Chris is markedly more regretful and upfront about his self-blame than Jason is. Additionally, his surprise at Jason’s white supremacist tattoos perhaps suggests that Jason wasn’t always racist (or at least not openly so). Such beliefs may have been brought out and exacerbated by Jason’s incarceration, as it’s common for prisoners to divide themselves on racial lines.
Chris begins to emotionally spiral, telling Evan how he constantly thinks about what would have happened if he’d made different choices even though Reverend Duckett has encouraged Chris to forgive himself. He says that when he saw Jason crossing the street, he forgot everything he’d imagined saying to him. He felt his emotions well up and clenched his fists, but suddenly, he and Jason were hugging. Chris holds back tears and reflects that at that moment, for the first time in eight years, he felt like he could return home. Suddenly, Santana’s song “Smooth” begins to blast, and the past seems to slash through the year 2008.
This passage further emphasizes how deeply Chris’s shame plagues him and how his preoccupation with the past is preventing him from making progress. The emotional encounter between Chris and Jason is another hint that their relationship was once highly important to both of them, and that they’re now missing the sense of camaraderie, familiarity, and support that their friendship once provided. Additionally, their affection for each other despite the fact that Chris is black suggests that Jason’s racist sentiments are based in misplaced anger rather than any real ideological convictions.