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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Culture Couch: Wright State Theater will present Pulitzer Prize winning play "Sweat"

Cast of Sweat L to R: Jacob Jones, Marcus Antonio, Tommy Cole, Madyson McCabe, Elaine Mueller, Zavi Odetta
Wright State Theatre
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Cast of Sweat L to R: Jacob Jones, Marcus Antonio, Tommy Cole, Madyson McCabe, Elaine Mueller, Zavi Odetta

This week Wright State Theater presents Sweat, a provocative play that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. The play helps us understand what events led to our deepening divisions of class and race.

We first meet Tracey and Cynthia celebrating Tracey’s birthday at their local bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, rust belt country. It’s 2000, and Santana’s “Smooth” is playing on the jukebox. The friends have worked blue collar jobs on the same factory floor all their lives, and they share everything. Tracey is white and Cynthia is Black. At the bar, race has never come between the two women. In this scene, it comes out that management may need a new supervisor.

Cynthia: Who knows? I might apply.

Tracey: What? Get out of here!

Cynthia: Why the hell not? I got 24 years on the floor.

Tracey: I got you beat by 2. Started in ’74. Walked in straight out of high school, first and only job. Management is for them. Not us.

Madyson McCabe plays Tracey, the white character. The actress grew up in Toledo, and she sees a lot of Tracey’s character in her stepmom who works in a Detroit steel stamping plant.

“She worked on the line when she was out of high school just kind of like Tracey,” says McCabe, “and she worked her way up. She talks about when the auto industry was like saved in like 2008 or around that time. She’s like, “I remember watching the news and just sobbing.”

Madyson McCabe as Tracey, Zavi Odetta (in back) as Cynthia
Wright State Theatre
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Madyson McCabe as Tracey, Zavi Odetta (in back) as Cynthia

McCabe says these economic fears drive Tracey’s actions in the play. “She has this beautiful monologue where she talks about how long her family’s been here and how she’s seen this town go from this amazing thing where she used to go shopping with her grandfather to now this kind of downtrodden town. How she’s watched these stores all close. And now, you’re just going to come in and take my job while I’m falling apart?”

As management changes the game with NAFTA and plant closings, Tracey and her family struggle to hold onto the life they have earned. For Cynthia, the African American character, she seeks opportunity that was denied her and her family for generations. Zavi Odetta plays Cynthia. “She’s a person who acknowledges that she works with a lot of white people. She’s one of them in the sense that she’s a worker just like them, and they’re working at the same place, but at the end of the day, she’s black, and her son is Black, and her husband’s Black."

We see Cynthia’s conflict in this scene.

Cynthia: I’ve stood on that line, that same line since I was 19. I’ve taken orders from idiots who were dangerous, or even worse, racist. But I worked hard to get off that floor. So you can call me selfish. I don’t care. Call me whatever you want but remember one of us has to be left standing to fight.

Odetta knows Cynthia’s struggle. “I worked in the office of a factory,” Odetta recalls, “but I was very shocked to enter that building every day and see maybe four other people at most that looked like me. I definitely understand where she’s like you are not going to know what it’s like to be me.”

As the management of the factory tighten the screws on their longtime workers, The character of Cynthia starts to doubt her decisions. Odetta recognizes these doubts for her Cynthia: “What if they gave her the job just so that they can give her all the dirty work, and they can keep their hands clean?”

Madyson McCabe as Tracey, Elaine Mueller as Jessie, Zavi Odetta as Cynthia
Wright State Theatre
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Madyson McCabe as Tracey, Elaine Mueller as Jessie, Zavi Odetta as Cynthia

Every scene in Sweat unfolds at the bar. We see the women’s humor and conflicts in this time of economic recession. The management remain an unseen force. “These people that own the companies,” says McCabe,“ they have complete power over these people’s lives and so that force you do feel it the whole play. To highlight that and to illuminate that is important because people need to be aware of the fact that these people feel unseen and to show them is beautiful.

Sweat plays at Wright State Theater beginning February 10 and runs through February 20. Masks will be required for the audience.

For tickets, go to the Wright State theater box office.

Ticketholders for the original opening weekend (February 3 - 6) can reschedule through the Wright State box office, or by contacting Box Office Manager, David Emery at david.emery@wright.edu.

David Seitz learned his basic audio writing skills in the third Community Voices class. Since then he has produced many stories on music, theater, dance, and visual art for Cultural Couch. He is deeply grateful that most of my stories bring out social justice issues in a variety of art forms, whether it be trans gender singing, the musical story of activist Bayard Rustin, or men performing Hamilton in prison.