September 28, 2000. In the news, Venus and Serena Williams win gold medals in women’s doubles tennis at the Summer Olympics; three Mexican migrant farmworkers in Reading are killed in a car accident. Jason and Chris stumble into the bar, where Brucie is slumped over at a table, looking high. Relieved to have found his father, Chris asks where Brucie has been. He tells Brucie that Cynthia is worried and that he needs to pull himself together. Brucie tells Chris and Jason to leave him alone, but then he begs Chris to listen to something that recently happened to him: Brucie was protesting on the union line when it started to rain, and but couldn’t flee with everyone else because he felt paralyzed. Finally, someone pulled him into a tent, where he sat shaking. He felt completely out of control.
The contrast between the Williams sisters’ triumph in this headline and Cynthia’s admitted struggles in the previous act implies that while minorities are experiencing success in some realms, those in predominantly white and working-class communities still have hurdles to overcome. Meanwhile, Brucie’s story of feeling literally paralyzed during the protest is symbolic of the figurative paralysis most of the play’s characters are feeling: without any indication of when their respective lockouts will end, they’re essentially trapped in a limbo in which they’re unwilling to give into their companies’ demands but also unwilling (or unable) to move on and seek work elsewhere.
Chris tells Brucie not to let the lockout get to him, and Brucie reassures Chris that he’s okay. Stan pours Chris a beer, and Brucie asks Chris about Olstead’s and about college. The lockout is getting hostile, Chris says, and he’s decided not to enroll at school this semester because he can’t afford the tuition. Brucie asks what Cynthia thinks about this, but Chris says that his relationship with her is strained right now.
The conflict in Chris and Cynthia’s relationship once again shows the interpersonal consequences of trying to get ahead in life. While Cynthia sees her job at Olstead’s as an indispensable opportunity (and the lockout as a way of giving Chris the necessary push to pursue his dreams), Chris seems to be at least partially aligned with Tracey and the others, viewing Cynthia’s management role as a betrayal rather than a triumph.
Brucie worries that protesting with the union isn’t such a good idea for Chris, but Chris remembers the first time Brucie walked out of his job: Brucie held a meeting with about a dozen other men at their house after one of their coworkers lost his hand in the mill. Brucie had shouted about how they’d rise up and vote if the company didn’t meet their demands. After school, Chris and his friends rode their bikes to watch the men picket at the mill—he remembers that they looked “like warriors” standing in solidarity.
Having come from a legacy of blue-collar union workers, Chris holds romantic ideals of union protestors as “warriors” pursuing social justice. However, Brucie’s current state—financially destitute and constantly inebriated—shows the long-term consequences of trying to take a stand against companies like Olstead’s. Brucie’s fall sends the discouraging message that Reading’s working class is unappreciated and cast out no matter how hard they work or how persistently they fight.
Chris says that this memory inspires him to be remain strong on the line; he and Jason are adamant that Olstead’s won’t break them. But Brucie remains skeptical: he tells Chris that they don’t “give a damn about your black ass” and reminds Chris that he has the opportunity to get an education—something Brucie never had. He encourages Chris not to back down from his aspirations. What will happen, he asks, when the line thins out?
Although Brucie was initially skeptical of Chris’s aspiration to become a teacher, he’s now supportive. Having suffered the consequences of being undervalued by a company, Brucie wants something entirely different for his son—even if that means feeling left behind when Chris moves on. Additionally, his comment about Olstead’s not caring about Chris because he’s black supports Cynthia’s conviction that her identity as a black woman makes her even more devalued and disposable at Olstead’s. The discrimination that minorities face in Reading seems to worsen the already difficult struggles of working-class life.