xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement

Arena Stage play realistically portrays union struggles

Before my dad became a supervisor for a time at an international construction company, for many years he was president of his local union. I remember he kept the multi-drawer steel file cabinet that contained his union work in a corner of the house and we were warned not to open it.

Sometimes my brother and I went with him to his meetings, but we never went inside the building. We found things to do while we waited and it seemed as if those were the longest meetings. But we were just happy to be somewhere besides home and looked forward to stopping to get something to eat on the way back.

Advertisement

My dad didn't talk about those meetings much but I remember at times overhearing him telling my mom about the changes he was pushing to make conditions better for workers at the plant, such as increased wages, safer work spaces, increased health benefits and compensation for injuries, to name a few. He was sometimes threatened for his work but said as long as his family was safe, he'd continue his union work and if he was fired, he'd run his small grocery store and auto repair shop full time or use his certification as an electrician to support the family.

I thought about those days when I went to see Arena Stage's production of "Sweat" this month, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. It is set in a mill town in Pennsylvania and goes back and forth between an eight-year-period when the characters are roiled in turmoil as a result of changes at the mill where they worked.

Advertisement

In my father's day, and now as well, companies did not welcome unions and did what they could to keep them out or break them, sometimes closing shop and going elsewhere when the demands of the unions exceeded what they were willing to offer workers.

The play gets to the heart of this and it's obvious that Nottage spent a lot of time in towns like the one in the play interviewing mill workers. She respectfully and poignantly portrays their lives. Most of the action takes place in a bar where the parents, their sons and friends drink heavily to relieve the stress of their back-breaking work and complain a lot about their working conditions.

"Twenty-eight years and I was a nobody to them after three generations of loyalty," said the bartender, who walks with a limp from an injury he received on the job at the mill.

A black character named Cynthia who has worked at the mill for 24 years talked about a man whose wife left him after rumors spread that the plant was closing.

"He burned his house and shot his ear off," Cynthia said. "Brucie has been using that [expletive] since the plant locked him off," she added, referring to her husband, who became a drug addict after he was fired because of his union organizing activities.

In "Sweat" Nottage was on point on union issues and others involving class, racial divisions and jealousies that often develop between friends, when they feel their way of life is threatened. Cynthia's white friends shun her when she gets a promotion off the production line and all hell breaks loose when the bar's Colombian busboy crosses the picket line and takes a job at the mill during a strike.

There's also Cynthia's son Chris who saved his money so he can leave the mill and enroll in college. He tells his white friend Jason that he wants a better life than his parents but Jason and others in the bar try to discourage him, saying he'll come back begging for his job but that once he leaves, he won't be let back in.

That exchange was so real for me because I have a friend who went through a similar scenario as a deputy sheriff in a small Southern town. He saved his money so he could go to college to study engineering. His fellow officers laughed at him and tried to discourage him by telling him that he already had a dream job and would be foolish to give it up to go to college. My friend didn't listen, but left the force and graduated with an engineering degree, joined the service as an officer and after a career in the Army, is now retired and relaxing in sunny Florida.

I think he and my dad would have enjoyed "Sweat," because Nottage realistically portrayed people who might not have been like them, but who they had known; people who did not believe they had a lot of choices in life; people who had good traits and major flaws; people who had moments of courage and weakness--something we can all relate to and something Nottage presented in a way that made it worth talking about afterwards.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement