Sweat’s cast of characters reads as distinctly human: none are wholly good nor wholly bad, and nearly all make mistakes that hurt themselves or their loved ones. The play alternates between the same characters in 2000 and 2008, a plot structure that allows the audience to see how these choice pan out over time—and the shame and guilt that characters feel in response to their actions, even eight years later. By showing how people are consumed by regret over the course of nearly a decade, Sweat makes the case that shame is a powerful, self-destructive force, ultimately advocating for the healing power of forgiving oneself and others.
Sweat begins by introducing the audience to Jason and Chris, former best friends who are newly out on parole after 8-year prison sentences for their mutual involvement in a crime. The mystery of this crime becomes the central force driving the play, and though the specifics of the incident aren’t revealed until the end, Jason and Chris’s remorse is raw and palpable. It’s eventually revealed that in 2000, Jason and Chris—fueled by racially and economically motivated hatred—assaulted Oscar, a busboy at the local bar they frequented. However, Jason also inadvertently ended up hitting Stan, the bartender, which left Stan permanently disabled with a traumatic brain injury. Leading up to this incident, Jason and Chris are portrayed as normal 21-year-old men with strong work ethic and an even stronger friendship. The fact that these seemingly average young men are capable of such a brutal crime sends the message that people who do evil things aren’t wholly evil—anyone, the play shows, is capable of making terrible mistakes. Regardless, in 2008, Jason and Chris are still ashamed and tortured by what they’ve done. Evan, their parole office, has separate meetings with them in which both men reveal how much they’re struggling. It’s implied that Jason has turned to drugs to numb his emotions, and Chris is racked with guilt: he’s “quite fidgety and anxious” and is having trouble sleeping and communicating with others. He reflects, “A couple minutes, your and I whole changes, that’s it. It’s gone. […] What if. What if. What if. All night. In my head. I can’t turn it off.” As both men are struggling to hold down jobs and integrate themselves back into society, it’s clear that the shame they still feel over the assault is hindering them psychologically and leading them back down the path of self-destruction.
Jason and Chris aren’t the only characters in the play who make decisions they’re ashamed of: Chris’s mother, Cynthia, is also hung up on the past. In 2000, Cynthia receives a promotion to Warehouse Manager at Olstead’s Steel Tubing plant. While this is initially a point of pride for her, having worked at the mill for over 20 years, it quickly becomes a source of shame when her coworkers (who are also her dear friends) turn on her for her alleged complicity in a lockout at Olstead’s. She confides in Stan, “Do you know what it feels like, to say to the people you’ve worked with for years that they’re not welcome anymore? I haven’t slept in…over a week.” Though Cynthia knows she needs the money that comes with her new position, part of her regrets taking it because it means betraying her friends—again, the play shows that even those with good intentions can make regrettable decisions. Indeed, this remorse haunts Cynthia for years. By 2008, she’s realized that taking the promotion wasn’t worth it—she even apologizes to Chris when he’s released from prison (when presumably he should be the one apologizing to her). This implies that she blames herself not only for the fallout with her friends, but for Jason and Chris’s crime, since they attacked Oscar out of rage in reaction to the lockout that happened while she was a manager. Cynthia has since isolated herself and resigned herself to low-paying maintenance jobs, which suggests that she, too, is held back by the shame she feels over her past decisions.
However, the play’s cautiously optimistic ending suggests that people are not doomed to live in shame and regret—they can and should move beyond past mistakes to forgive themselves and others. Toward the end of the play, Evan tells Jason and Chris that shame is “not a productive emotion. Most folks think it’s the guilt or rage that destroys us in the end, but I know it’s shame that eats us away until we disappear […] whatcha gonna do about where you’re at right now?” With this, he encapsulates one of the play’s central messages: that everyone makes mistakes and experiences shame, but it’s ultimately futile and harmful to dwell on the past. This advice seems to resonate with Jason and Chris, as they ultimately reunite on good terms and go to the bar to make amends with Oscar and Stan. The play ends with this stage direction: “There’s apology in their eyes, but Chris and Jason are unable to conjure words just yet. The four men, uneasy in their bodies, await the next moment in a fractured togetherness.” This sense of a tentative mending among the four men suggests that, although Jason and Chris are still mired in shame and unsure of how to navigate their newfound freedom, they’ve taken an important step toward forgiving themselves—and there’s hope that Oscar and Stan will forgive them as well.
Importantly, Nottage doesn’t aim to rationalize or excuse any of her characters’ actions, particularly those of Jason and Chris. But by providing a nuanced picture of what led up to their mistakes and the aftermath of those decisions, Sweat shows that allowing oneself to be held back by shame is counterproductive for all parties involved. Rather, people should strive to forgive themselves and others, even if the first step is only “fractured togetherness.”
Shame, Regret, and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
Shame, Regret, and Forgiveness Quotes in Sweat
CHRIS (Escalating emotions): I dunno. A couple minutes, and your whole life changes, that’s it. It’s gone. Every day I think about what if I hadn’t…You know…I run it and run it, a tape over and over again. What if. What if. What if. All night. In my head. I can’t turn it off. Reverend Duckett said, “Lean on God for forgiveness. Lean on God to find your way through the terrible storm.” I’m leaning into the wind, I’m fuckin’ leaning […] What we did was unforgiveable…
CYNTHIA: […] You know after everything. I wanna say that…
(Cynthia fights back emotions.)
CHRIS: For what?
CYNTHIA: It’s just, I shoulda…
(Chris places his arms around Cynthia.)
CHRIS: C’mon. C’mon. I don't want this to be a big deal. Tell me about what’s been going on. You hear from the old gang? Tracey?
CYNTHIA: Fuck her. After what went down. We don’t really—
EVAN: I’ve seen enough guys in your situation to know that over time it’s…it’s crippling. I’m not a therapist, I’m not the right dude to talk to about any of this. But what I do know, is that it’s not a productive emotion. Most folks think it’s the guilt or rage that destroys us in the end, but I know from experience that it’s shame that eats us away until we disappear. You put in your time. But look here, we been talking, and we can keep talking—but whatcha gonna do about where you’re at right now?