Sweat takes place in Reading, Pennsylvania, a Rust Belt city whose predominantly white and largely working-class population is deeply affected by the early-2000s decline in the manufacturing industry. As a community already steeped in tradition and resistant to outsiders, this downturn causes Reading’s white working class to become downright hostile toward black and Latinx people—even individuals they once called friends—because they believe minorities are stealing their jobs away. As such, the play shows how economic strain can worsen race relations between white and minority communities, creating desperation among blue-collar laborers that brings underlying racial tensions to the surface.
Even prior to the worst of the financial strife that the characters face, there is palpable tension between the community’s different racial groups. Tracey, a middle-aged white woman who works at the local Olstead’s Steel Tubing plant, is adamant that German immigrants like her grandparents built Reading from the ground up and made it what it is today. When Oscar, a Colombian American busboy at the bar Tracey frequents, expresses interest in working at the plant, she tells him outright that “Olstead’s isn’t for you.” Although Tracey claims to hold no prejudice, and despite the fact that Oscar was born in Berks County just like she was, it’s clear that Tracey views Reading—and particularly Olstead’s—as a kind of in-group where Latinx people aren’t welcome. This rarely spoken but ever-present prejudice isn’t limited to Tracey. Seemingly all of the white people who frequent the bar purposefully ignore Oscar—no one but Stan, the bartender, acknowledges him despite the fact that he is a “quiet but alert presence” on the periphery of nearly every scene. As the only Latinx character in the play, Oscar’s status as an outsider represents the broader experience of minorities in Reading: though rarely outwardly discriminated against, they’re largely distrusted, marginalized, and ignored by the white community.
When Olstead’s and several other local mills are hit by the early-2000s manufacturing downturn and begin to institute lockouts, already tense race relations further deteriorate in tandem with the economy. As Olstead’s workers face the reality of being locked out of the company to which they’ve dedicated their lives, they’re incensed that the plant is supposedly outsourcing manufacturing to Mexico and simultaneously bringing in cheap labor from across the border. This results in people like Tracey and her son Jason (who also works at Olstead’s) lashing out at Oscar and the rest of the Latinx community. They hurl racial slurs at Oscar when they find out he’s among the temporary workers who are replacing them during the lockout. “You better believe it’s personal,” Tracey tells Oscar, driving home the idea that racial divisions become more pronounced and indeed “personal” when people’s livelihoods are at stake. When Tracey’s best friend, Cynthia (a black woman), is promoted off the floor to Warehouse Supervisor at Olstead’s just before the lockout, Tracey also turns on her. Despite Cynthia having earned the position fair and square, Tracey claims that “they wanted a minority […]. They get tax breaks or something.” By writing off Cynthia’s accomplishment as an affirmative action ploy, Tracey reduces her friend to her race, demonstrating how perceived economic inequality can bring out formerly nonexistent (or at least unvoiced) prejudice. Cynthia is deeply hurt by this insinuation: “Be angry, but don’t make it about this,” she says to Tracey as she points to her own skin. Although Tracey is perhaps understandably resentful over the lockout and Cynthia’s complicity in it as a manager, her racism toward Cynthia is unwarranted and undeniably cruel. The gradual dissolution of their friendship shows how economic strife can breed racial tension not just among strangers, but between trusted friends.
The economic strain and subsequent racism that gathers steam throughout the play culminates in tragedy, driving home the severe consequences that can arise from such animosity. Distraught over losing their jobs at Olstead’s, Jason, along with Cynthia’s son Chris, attack Oscar (and, inadvertently, Stan) in a racially motivated hate crime. Jason and Chris go to prison for eight years for the assault, during which time Jason is seemingly initiated into the Aryan Brotherhood. His face is covered in white supremacist tattoos when he’s released, despite the fact that Chris, who’s black, was once his best friend. Jason’s willingness to lash out at Oscar and his transformation to full-blown white supremacy demonstrates the slippery slope of racist sentiments that arise in response to desperate circumstances. However, the play ends on a hopeful note: after Chris and Jason are both released, they reunite amicably in spite of Jason’s offensive tattoos, and they go back to the bar to make peace with Oscar and Stan. This suggests that while economic strife can certainly bring out the worst in people and exacerbate already present racism toward minorities, such racial tensions aren’t necessarily insurmountable.
Critics have praised Sweat for the insight it provides into the American Rust Belt, a region that experienced a shift in ethnic demographics alongside severe unemployment and poverty with the fall of heavy industry in the early 2000s. In some areas, the Reading of the play included, this complex combination of circumstances has resulted in social and political animosity between the white working class and minorities—and the play certainly doesn’t seek to excuse racist sentiments. Rather, Sweat raises awareness of this real-life racial tension, shedding light on the economic and cultural factors behind the issue and adding nuance to the audience’s perceptions of both minorities and the white working class. Ultimately, the play offers hope that reconciliation between these polarized groups is possible.
Economic Strain and Race Relations ThemeTracker
Economic Strain and Race Relations Quotes in Sweat
STAN: Says he got wind that they were gonna cut back his line at the plant. Couldn’t handle the stress.
CYNTHIA: That rumor’s been flying around for months. Nobody’s going anywhere.
STAN: Okay, you keep telling yourself that, but you saw what happened over at Clemmons Technologies. No one saw that coming. Right? You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico, whatever, it’s this NAFTA bullshit—
BRUCIE: […] this old white cat, whatever, gets in my face, talking about how we took his job. We? […] He don’t know my biography. October 2nd, 1952, my father picked his last bale of cotton. He packed his razor and a Bible and headed North. Ten days later he had a job at Dixon’s Hosieries. He clawed his way up from the filth of the yard to Union Rep, fighting for fucking assholes just like this cat. So I don’t understand it. This damn blame game, I got enough of that in my marriage.
TRACEY: […] I know the floor as good as Cynthia. I do. […] I betcha they wanted a minority. I’m not prejudice, but that’s how things are going these days. I got eyes. They get tax breaks or something. […] I’m not prejudice, I say, you are who you are, you know? I’m cool with everyone. But I mean…c’mon…you guys coming over here, you can get a job faster than—
OSCAR: I was born here.
TRACEY: Still…you weren’t born here, Berks.
OSCAR: Yeah, I was.
TRACEY: Yeah? Well, my family’s been here a long time. Since the twenties, okay? They built the house that I live in. They built this town.
TRACEY: […] It was back when if you worked with your hands people respected you for it. It was a gift. But now, there’s nothing on Penn. You go into buildings, the walls are covered over with sheetrock, the wood painted gray, or some ungodly color, and it just makes me sad. It makes me…whatever.
OSCAR: You okay?
TRACEY: Listen, that piece of paper you’re holding is an insult, it don’t mean anything, Olstead’s isn’t for you.
CYNTHIA: […] I don’t deserve the things you’ve been saying. You’ve always been cool. Be angry, but don’t make it about this…(Points to the skin on the back of her hand) Look at me, Tracey. You don’t want to go down that road, we’ve got too much history between us. You got a problem, you tell me to my face.
CYNTHIA: I’ve stood on that line, same line since I was nineteen. I’ve taken orders from idiots who were dangerous, or even worse, racist. But I stood on line, patiently waiting for a break. I don’t think you get it, but if I walk away, I’m giving up more than a job, I’m giving up all that time I spent standing on line waiting for one damn opportunity.
TRACEY: You want us to feel sorry for you?
CYNTHIA: …I didn’t expect you to understand, babe. You don’t know what it’s been like to walk in my shoes. I’ve absorbed a lotta shit over the years, but I worked hard to get off that floor. Call me selfish, I don’t care, call me whatever you need to call me, but remember, one of us has to be left standing to fight.
OSCAR: […] I keep asking for some good fortune. That’s it. A little bit of money. That’s it. My father, he swept up the floor in a factory like Olstead’s—those fuckas wouldn’t even give him a union card. But he woke up every morning at four A.M. because he wanted a job in the steel factory, it was the American way, so he swept fucking floors thinking, “One day they’ll let me in.” I know how he feels, people come in here every day. They brush by me without seeing me. No: “Hello, Oscar.” If they don’t see me, I don’t need to see them.
JASON: […] Eleven dollars an hour? No thank you. They’ll work us down to nothing if we let ‘em. “Jacking ain’t for softies!” But they know they can always find somebody willing to get their hands sweaty. And they’re right. There will always be someone who’ll step in, unless we say NO!
STAN: Look. Olstead is a prick. If he was here I wouldn’t stop you. In fact I’d hold him down for you to give him a proper beating, but Oscar…he’s another story.
JASON: […] All I’m saying is that he needs to understand the price of that dinner he’s putting on his table.
STAN (Shouts): What the fuck do you want him to do? Huh? It ain’t his fault. Talk to Olstead, his cronies. Fucking Wall Street. Oscar ain’t getting rich off your misery.