Sweat

by

Lynn Nottage

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Sweat: Act 1, Scene 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
April 17, 2000. In the news, the “tech bubble” has recently burst, causing a record 617-point drop in the Dow Jones. Tracey is smoking outside the bar, and Oscar steps out to ask her for a cigarette. She denies him, and they get into a tense spat and hurl insults at each other. Finally, Tracey breaks and gives Oscar a cigarette. Oscar asks Tracey a series of questions about what it’s like to work at Olstead’s, finally revealing that he saw a job posting at the Latino Community Center and that he’s thinking of applying. He shows Tracey the poster, but she doesn’t believe it’s real—Olstead’s isn’t hiring, she says. Further, she tells him that he’d have to be in the union and would have to know someone at the plant to get hired.
The news headline in this act again emphasizes the volatility of the economy as a whole—even those working in the tech industry, who presumably make much more money than the characters in Sweat do, are facing financial uncertainty at this time. The fact that Olstead’s is seemingly turning to the Latino Community Center for job recruiting doesn’t bode well for current employees like Tracey, who denies that the plant is even hiring. If Olstead’s brings in Latinx (and particularly Latinx immigrant) workers who are willing to work for a lower wage due to a lack of opportunity elsewhere, this foreshadows potential tension between the Latinx community and the predominantly white Olstead’s workers who are at risk of being replaced.
Themes
Working-Class Disillusionment Theme Icon
Economic Strain and Race Relations Theme Icon
Changing the subject, Oscar notes the loud party in the bar, and Tracey informs him that they’re celebrating Cynthia’s recent promotion. She tells Oscar that she’s just as qualified as Cynthia is and that Olstead’s only promoted Cynthia because they’ll get tax breaks for having a manager who’s a minority. Oscar is doubts this, but Tracey is adamant that this is just the way things are—but she reassures him that she’s not prejudiced. Then, Tracey makes an offhanded comment about “you guys coming over here” to get jobs, but Oscar tells her that he was born in Berks County just like she was.
Rather than supporting her friend, Tracey reacts to Cynthia’s promotion with jealousy and spite. She even resorts to racism, which was seemingly not an issue in their relationship until now. This, along with the offhand racist comment that Tracey makes about Latinx people, suggests that she feels threatened by others getting ahead while she remains stagnant, and that such a situation can create or exacerbate racial tension.
Themes
Relationships, Status, and Resentment Theme Icon
Economic Strain and Race Relations Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Tracey responds that her family has been in Reading since the 1920s—“they built this town.” She tells Oscar that her grandfather was a German craftsman who was a talented woodworker and a respected figure in the community. She remembers how back then, Reading’s downtown was beautiful and people used to dress up to go shopping. Manual laborers and craftsmen were respected—now, Tracey is saddened by how ugly and generic all of the buildings in town look. Oscar asks if she’s okay, to which Tracey curtly replies that “Olstead’s isn’t for you.”
Tracey’s reflections about how Reading used to be gives more context for her cruel behavior: she’s clearly disillusioned and cynical about how the working-class community is now undervalued rather than respected for their hard work. As a result, she feels particularly threatened by those she perceives as outsiders who could potentially replace her—and this manifests in racism toward Oscar and Latinx people in general, whom Tracey is adamant don’t belong at Olstead’s or in Reading. 
Themes
Working-Class Disillusionment Theme Icon
Economic Strain and Race Relations Theme Icon
Related Quotes