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‘They just told my story’: What happens when a play about union busting tours Rust Belt cities

The Mobile Unit of New York City’s Public Theater takes Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play “Sweat” on an 18-city tour through the Midwest offering free and intimate performances of the Broadway show.
The Mobile Unit of New York City’s Public Theater takes Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play “Sweat” on an 18-city tour through the Midwest offering free and intimate performances of the Broadway show. (Dustin Franz/For The Washington Post)
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ERIE, Pa. — Hunched over and weeping, Fred Kimbrew had to look away from the stage. He would say later that it felt as if he were seeing the pain in his own life being reenacted. And in a way, he was.

 The play was “Sweat,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Lynn Nottage about the racial animus aroused by the busting of a steel­workers union in a dying, blue-collar Pennsylvania town. In a one-of-a-kind event, New York’s Public Theater is taking an ensemble of Broadway and off-Broadway actors to 18 small towns and cities over 29 days in five Rust Belt and Upper Midwestern states — the heart of MAGA country — to foster the notion that the arts shouldn’t be classified as blue or red. Rather, they are red, white and blue.

 “The difference the play makes to the people whose stories are being told is extraordinary,” said Nottage, standing in the makeshift theater in one of Erie’s poorest neighborhoods, where the “Sweat” tour was launched Thursday. “I think that what red and blue can recognize is that we all share the same narrative.”

 It is unheard of for a distinguished theater company to look beyond America’s major cities and book a play such as “Sweat” — which had a pre-Broadway run at Washington’s Arena Stage and played for 129 performances on Broadway last year — in places such as Erie; Ashtabula, Ohio; Saginaw, Mich.; and Hayward, Wis. And visit not just visit unconventional cities but also unorthodox stages: “Sweat” on tour is being presented free in union halls, churches, food pantries, even centers for men and women recently released from prison, such as Climate Changers, a ­social-service facility on hardscrabble East 11th Street in Erie.

Theater is often viewed as a diversion for moneyed classes of a progressive bent in cosmopolitan places. To Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, this tour attempts to redress the imbalance and seek out audiences in President Trump’s America. “One of the things that we have done is turn our back to half of America, in the idea that the riches of theater belong to the coasts, to the elites,” Eustis said. “The Public has done a commendable job of reaching out to urban populations, but we’ve said to half the country, ‘We got nothing for you.’ We have done the same thing to that part of the country that the economy has done: We’ve abandoned them.”

“Sweat” seems a fitting vehicle to start changing that perception. Set in 2000 to 2008 in Reading, Pa., where Nottage did her research, the play is built around the friendship of two women, one white, one black, who work the assembly line in a metal-tubing plant. The breakdown of their relationship and the tensions that escalate around them occur as the African American worker, Cynthia, is promoted to management just as the company locks out union members, recruits cheaper replacements from the local Latino community and starts shipping jobs to a plant in Mexico. Seething, the locked-out white worker, Tracey, provokes a violent incident in the union workers’ favorite watering hole, with terrible consequences.

Watching a story so familiar, played out with such rawness, by actors on a makeshift stage barely an arm’s length away, is too much for some audience members, including those who have never been to a play before. “I’m from Aliquippa, Pa.,” Kimbrew said during the post-show discussion, led by the Public’s Chiara Klein, that follows every performance. “My grandfather worked in the steel mill for 40 years. When you took out the mill, out came the drug activity. So it was play ball or sell drugs,” he added, choking up.

Asked afterward why he cried, Kimbrew replied, “You ever went somewhere and felt, ‘They just told my story?’ ”

In Ashtabula on Friday night, 50 miles down Interstate 90 from Erie, Eustis was in the audience at a food pantry, where people came for the food and stayed for the play. “The audience was older and very quiet during the show — very few laughs, little sort of rumbles of recognition,” he said. “I was not quite sure how they were reacting. Then, after the show, they started talking, and every single person broke into sobs. I thought, ‘These are people who don’t know how to respond to theater, but it’s getting to them.’ It was about losing the town’s identity and their feeling of belonging not to the future but the past. Their reaction was powerful, but in different ways than I would have thought.”

Ashtabula County gave Trump 57.2 percent of its vote in 2016, and Sawyer County in Wisconsin, where Hayward is located, awarded him nearly 60 percent. Trump even scored narrow victories in more reliably Democratic counties, such as Saginaw and Erie. So in a sense with this tour, the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit — a company arm that traditionally brings Shakespeare productions to New York’s outer boroughs — was venturing into what might be regarded for a liberal theater troupe as politically hostile territory.

So intent was Eustis that the show not be perceived as ­one-sided that he added this note to the programs handed out every evening: “This isn’t a Republican or Democrat play. This play does what theater does best: it tells the truth about the lives of people who don’t normally get the spotlight, who aren’t glamorous or rich, but who are as heroic and deep and complicated as anyone.” 

 Erie, a city of 98,000 on the shores of Lake Erie, halfway between Buffalo and Cleveland, suffered from the same kind of deindustrialization that has afflicted communities across the Rust Belt. Since 1960, it has lost about a third of its residents and at the same time has become a significant destination for refugees and immigrants. About 20 percent of the population is made up of what the city calls “New Americans.” In an interview in his downtown offices, Mayor Joseph Schember (D) recalled working as a teenager as a chipper in an aluminum casting plant in the city’s once-bustling industrial corridor. “You could walk down 12th Street and get five good jobs,” he said.

Now, the plants are closed and the city has been regrouping, with bipartisan efforts to lure innovative businesses and participate in federal community-development initiatives. As to whether the corrosive political battles in the nation’s capital have much impact in Erie, the city’s genial mayor observed: “I think we think more about what’s going on here. The leadership is working together like never before.”

Schember would show up Thursday evening at Climate Changers, but the question hanging in the air in the hours before the event was, would anyone else? A lot rode on the success of this first stop, as it would set the tone for a month’s worth of stops on the tour, a project underwritten largely by the Ford and Mellon foundations.

“This is hugely different from any theatrical experience I’ve ever had,” said Steve Key, who was an understudy in the Broadway production and now plays Stan, the former plant worker who presides over the bar in which the play takes place.

Public staffers need not have worried; by 6 p.m., the space was filling up, with an audience about equally black and white — a rare occurrence in Erie, people were saying. “This event is very, very important,” said Patrick Fisher, executive director of Erie Arts and Culture, a local support organization. “The fact that you can use an art form for an impartial conversation — that is why the arts matter.”

By 6:30, the room had an overflow crowd of 125. Extra folding chairs had to be brought in, although the supply of free vanilla cupcakes at intermission seemed just about right. Even more important was the nourishment the main event was providing.

“It does take you into how things really are,” said Gail Mitchell, a longtime Erie resident who came with her husband, Arthur. Wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers cap, Arthur Mitchell was compelled to think about his brother-in-law, a plant worker whose job simply evaporated. “One day he goes to work and they were shut,” he said. “And he had been there over 30 years.”

For Nottage, delving into the deeply felt issues that resulted in “Sweat” made her understand more completely that the unraveling of American civility and self-belief is a collective tragic act. She also sees her play breaking down barriers as a sign of hope. “Everyone is complicit in the undoing of the country,” she said. “There are no heroes, and there are no villains.”