Lynn Nottage

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Sweat: Act 2, Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

October 13, 2008. In the news, the Dow Jones has a record-breaking gain, and global government-funded bank bailouts are approved; Berks County, Pennsylvania, experiences a 111-percent rise in power shutoffs. Jason has come to visit Tracey, and he’s disappointed that his mom isn’t happy to see him—she forbids Jason from sitting down and tells him that his facial tattoos are stupid. Tracey hands over $5, and they get into an argument about her not offering him more money until Jason suddenly notices that Tracey is strung out on drugs. He asks how long this has been going on, but Tracey denies that she has a problem—she claims she only takes medicine for back pain. However, she snatches the $5 back, clearly desperate for a fix. Jason, horrified, asks Tracey how this could have happened.
In 2008, much the world is in the midst of the Great Recession. While big businesses are recovering and banks are being bailed out, poor and working-class people (like those in Berks County, where Reading is located) are struggling to pay basic expenses like electricity bills. Tracey, who’s clearly addicted to drugs and can hardly spare $5, is a clear example of how this economic inequality can cost people their livelihoods and their wellbeing.
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The scene switches to Chris, who’s come to visit Cynthia at her barren apartment. Chris asks when she moved, and Cynthia (who’s wearing a maintenance worker uniform) gives a vague answer about falling behind on her house payments. She asks Chris why he didn’t tell her he got released, and he says he didn’t want to bother her—but Cynthia is adamant that Chris stay with her. She notices the Bible Chris is holding and says she heard he got “churchy,” but Chris replies that this book saved his life.
Cynthia has lost her house (and seemingly her Warehouse Supervisor job at Olstead’s), again showing how the global recession has disproportionately affected working-class people and left them destitute. Meanwhile, Chris’s conviction that Christianity saved his life suggests that he has extended at least some level of forgiveness to himself, and that this attitude is what has allowed him to keep pushing forward rather than being destroyed by his shame and guilt.
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Changing the subject, Cynthia invites Chris to sit down and relax, and they each comment on how different the other looks. Cynthia tells him that she’s been working some hours doing maintenance at the university and at a nursing home. She apologizes for not visiting Chris in prison recently because it got too expensive. Suddenly, Cynthia becomes emotional and again apologizes to Chris, saying “I shoulda…” though Chris doesn’t think she has anything to be sorry about. Chris asks about Tracey, but Cynthia says tells him they’re not in contact anymore “after what went down.” Chris then shares that Jason is out too, which angers Cynthia—she reflects that Jason is the one who got Chris into trouble. She could have killed him, she says. Cynthia asks Chris what happened back then—she’s still trying to understand.
Cynthia’s apology to Chris and vague comment that “I shoulda…” implies that on some level, she blames herself for whatever situation landed Chris and Jason in prison. However, Jason’s belief that she shouldn’t be sorry suggests that Cynthia’s self-blame is unwarranted—and it’s likely holding her back and causing her unnecessary emotional pain. Additionally, the fact that Cynthia is no longer friends with Tracey shows the long-term consequences that can happen when one friend feels left behind by another: in their case, a decades-long friendship was thrown away seemingly because Tracey was resentful rather than supportive of Cynthia’s upward trajectory.
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