In September 2008, Jason, a man with white supremacist facial tattoos, meets with Evan, his African American parole officer. Jason is uncooperative when Evan asks him simple questions about his living situation and employment, and their tense interactions culminate in an argument wherein Jason yells racial slurs at Evan. Finally, Jason breaks and admits that he recently ran into Chris, whom Jason tried to forget while he was in prison. The scene switches to Evan’s parole meeting with Chris, a black man who’s struggling to integrate back into society since his release because he’s ashamed of being a felon and consumed with remorse over what he did. He tells Evan about how he recently saw Jason: the two men had hugged on the street despite their heightened emotions and Jason’s offensive tattoos.
The play flashes back to January 2000. Tracey (Jason’s mother), Cynthia (Chris’s mother), and their friend Jessie are celebrating Tracey’s birthday at a local bar in Reading, Pennsylvania. A drunken Jessie is passed out at a table while Tracey and Cynthia dance; they’re clearly close with each other and with Stan, the bartender with whom they engage in flirtatious banter. Cynthia tells Tracey and Stan about how she recently kicked out her estranged husband, Brucie, again—he’s been abusing drugs ever since he was locked out of his job at a local textile mill. They also discuss Freddy Brunner, an acquaintance who recently burned his own house down. He apparently did so due to the stress of his failed marriage, debt, and rumors of cutbacks at Olstead’s Steel Tubing (the mill where Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie also work). Though Cynthia and Tracey make light of such rumors, Stan is adamant that because of NAFTA, steel workers’ jobs could easily be outsourced to Mexico.
During this conversation, Jessie wakes up and become belligerent when Stan won’t serve her another drink. Oscar, the often-ignored Colombian American busboy, escorts her to the bathroom. Cynthia and Tracey worry that Jessie’s problem with alcohol could get her fired. The two women begin talking about recent changes at Olstead’s: there’s an open position for Warehouse Supervisor, and to Tracey’s surprise, Cynthia is thinking of going for the job. Stan is cynical about the disrespectful management at the plant, where generations of his family and he himself worked before he lost part of his leg in a work accident. Still, Cynthia and Tracey, who both have over 20 years of experience on the warehouse floor, are both set on applying.
In February, at the same bar, Jason, Chris, and Stan have a playful conversation about the motorcycle Jason wants to buy and about Chris’s new girlfriend while Oscar listens in. Then, Chris reveals that he’s been accepted to Albright College’s teaching program, which shocks Jason—they both work on the floor at Olstead’s, and Jason always assumed they would retire and open a business together. Jason is hurt that Chris didn’t tell him until now, and he’s adamant that Chris can’t leave Olstead’s because they’re supposed to be a team. But Chris has his heart set on following his own path—it’s just something he has to do.
The following month, Brucie sits at the bar and confides in Stan about the lockout at his textile mill, which has been going on for nearly two years. Brucie and the other employees refuse to give into concessions on their retirement benefits. Now, the plant is bringing in Mexican immigrants as temporary laborers. Stan commiserates with Brucie—he spent 28 years at Olstead’s and is glad that his injury got him out of there. Brucie admits that he feels lost, and he recounts an incident of racism he recently experienced at the labor union. Then, Cynthia, Tracey, and Jessie enter, and Brucie harasses Cynthia until she agrees to talk to him. He tells her that he’s in a rehab program, which doesn’t impress Cynthia. Cynthia shares Chris’s news about Albright, and Brucie disapproves of the tuition cost and of Chris leaving Olstead’s. Brucie ends up begging Cynthia for another chance, but she stays strong with Tracey and Jessie’s support.
In April, Cynthia has gotten the promotion to Warehouse Supervisor, and she and her friends celebrate at the bar. Tracey goes outside to smoke a cigarette, and Oscar comes out to ask her about working at Olstead’s—he recently saw a job posting at the local Latino Community Center. This confuses Tracey, as she’s adamant that they’re not hiring. Besides, Oscar would need to be in the union and to know someone at the plant to get a job there. Changing the subject, Tracey tells Oscar that Cynthia only got the promotion because she’s black and then makes an offhand comment about Latinx people like Oscar coming to Reading to get jobs—but Oscar says that he was born in Berks County just like Tracey was. However, Tracey is adamant that German immigrants like her own grandparents built the town. She tells Oscar that “Olstead’s isn’t for you.”
A couple of weeks later, Jessie waits alone at the bar—Tracey, Cynthia, Jason, and Chris are all late to her birthday celebration. Eventually, everyone but Tracey shows up, and Cynthia and Jessie reminisce about their early days at the factory. Just as Jessie is vulnerably sharing her unrealized dreams of seeing the world as a young woman, Tracey bursts in. The mood becomes tense, and Tracey and Cynthia get into a spat: Tracey clearly resents Cynthia for getting the promotion over her. She’s is upset that Cynthia seems to be ignoring her and sucking up to management. Cynthia understands, but she asks Tracey not to make things about race, and she promises to let everyone know if she hears anything about the rumored layoffs.
On July 4, Chris and Jason run into Brucie at the bar, and they tell him that Olstead’s moved three mills out of the factory over the holiday weekend. Now, the company has posted a list of names on the front door, and Chris and Jason are in a hurry to go see it for themselves. Brucie warns them that no machines means no jobs—he thinks they’re about to be in the same situation he’s in. He advises them to take any concessions that are offered to prevent a lockout from happening. Chris and Jason rush off to Olstead’s.
The play flashes forward to October 2008, a couple of weeks after Jason and Chris’s parole meetings. Jason has come to beg Tracey for money, but she’s hostile and unwelcoming. Jason is horrified to realize that Tracey is high—it seems she developed an addiction to pain medication while Jason was in prison. At the same time, Chris goes to Cynthia’s apartment, where he’ll be staying. Cynthia, who lost her house and now works irregular hours at maintenance jobs, is warm and tearfully apologetic to Chris—though Chris doesn’t think she has anything to be sorry for. She tells him that she and Tracey no longer speak after everything that happened. Chris shares that Jason is out too, and Cynthia angrily reflects that Jason is the one who got Chris into trouble. She asks Chris to tell her what happened back then, because she still doesn’t understand.
The play flashes back to July 2000. In the bar, Stan and Oscar stand by as Tracey, Chris, Jason, and Jessie angrily demand Cynthia to tell them what’s going on. Cynthia begs everyone to stop yelling, but she eventually reveals that Olstead’s is going to renegotiate the floor workers’ contracts: in order to save jobs, there will be a 60-percent pay cut and concessions on benefits. She says that the U.S. plant has gotten too expensive to operate, and because of NAFTA, Olstead’s can easily outsource labor to Mexico. Tracey and the others are outraged. A month after this, Olstead’s workers have rejected the deal they were offered, and the lockout goes forward. Cynthia spends her birthday alone in the bar, where she confides in Stan how stressed and guilty she feels about locking her friends (and her own son) out of the plant. Tracey and Jessie show up and get into an argument with Cynthia, calling her a traitor. However, Cynthia is adamant that she can’t give up the opportunity she’s been given; Tracey and Jessie don’t understand what it’s like to walk in her shoes.
In September, Jason and Chris run into Brucie (who’s clearly high) at the bar, and Chris shares how his childhood memories of Brucie leading other men in a walkout at the mill inspire him to stay strong and keep protesting. However, Brucie tells him it’s pointless—Chris should follow his dreams and get an education instead. The following month, Oscar tells Stan that he’s taken on some temporary hours at Olstead’s because it pays so well, but Stan warns him that doing so will anger the floor workers who’ve been locked out. Oscar doesn’t care, though—everyone in Reading others him, so he feels no loyalty to them. Tracey comes into the bar while Oscar is in the back, and she tells Stan about how lost and humiliated she feels without a job. When Oscar returns, she hurls racial slurs and goes to lunge at him, but Stan holds her back. Oscar tells Tracey that him working at Olstead’s isn’t personal, but Tracey counters that to her, it is personal.
A week later, Chris, Jason, and other union members protesting on the line get into a physical fight with the Latinx temp workers at Olstead’s. Afterward, they go to the bar—where Jessie is once again passed out at a table—and excitedly tell Stan about it, but Stan isn’t impressed. He thinks Jason and Chris should move on and get out of Reading. Chris agrees—he doesn’t want to end up like Brucie. While they talk, Oscar comes into the bar to get his things from the back and say goodbye to Stan just as Tracey comes out of the bathroom. Tracey, Jessie, and Jason make racist slurs and comments at Oscar, and Jason stands up threateningly. Stan slams a baseball bat down on the bar and orders Jason to sit, but Jason blocks Oscar from leaving and begins to beat him. Stan and Chris try to intervene, but Tracey and Jessie egg the fight on. Chris eventually becomes angry as well, and he joins Jason in beating Oscar. Jason grabs the baseball bat and hits Oscar in the stomach, and as he swings back to hit him again, he accidentally strikes Stan in the head. Stan falls, hits his head on the bar, and lies bleeding on the ground.
The play returns to Jason and Chris’s separate parole meetings with Evan in October 2008. He encourages both men to let go of their shame and self-blame and to meet up with each other to talk. A few days later, Chris goes to the bar, where Oscar is now the manager. Jason shows up too, which initially alarms Oscar. Jason panics and goes to leave, but he stops when Stan enters to wipe down tables. Stan is now severely disabled with a traumatic brain injury; he struggles to hear or speak. Jason comments that Oscar is kind to take care of him, and Oscar replies that this is how things should be. Chris and Jason are clearly apologetic but can’t yet bring themselves to verbalize what they’re thinking. The four men uneasily wait for the next moment, together yet divided.