MANKATO – “Visceral.” “Raw.” “Riveting.”
A group of emotive Minnesotans uttered these and other reactions Thursday after taking in a powerful production of “Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the effects of deindustrialization on the people of Reading, Penn.
The drama, which mostly plays out in a bar where workers at nearby factories gather to chew the fat and drown their fears, had a brief run on Broadway last year. A show like this would ordinarily tour to smartly appointed theaters in big cities, such as the State in Minneapolis.
Instead, “Sweat” played Thursday at the Centenary United Methodist Church in Mankato, with the lights up so that the actors could see everything — the audience and one another. This bare-bones approach, perfected by the Twin Cities company Ten Thousand Things Theater, helped to keep everyone honest and engaged.
The production is part of the Mobile Unit of New York City’s Public Theater, where “Hamilton” originated, a company led by Red Wing-born Oskar Eustis. Staged with an edge of danger by award-winning director Kate Whoriskey, “Sweat” is touring to churches, shelters and other nontraditional venues in 18 medium-size cities in battleground states. (It plays in Rochester on Friday and St. Cloud on Saturday before ending the tour this month in Wisconsin.)
The 2016 elections revealed many gaps, including between urban and rural America. Theaters and other arts organizations are trying to repair that breach by taking stories and works to U.S. cities and towns many consider “forgotten” or “neglected.” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, who is published by Twin Cities-based Graywolf Press, has launched a similar project “celebrating poems in rural communities.” In Minnesota, the Public has partnered on “Sweat” with the Guthrie Theater, another company pondering ways to serve a larger swath of people.
Twin Cities area resident Frances Wilkinson, a board member of the Public and former board member of the Guthrie, took in the Mankato show.
“Given the tenor of the times, it’s become apparent that a large segment of the country has felt excluded from cultural connections,” she said. “The reason to do a tour now is to bring stories that relate to their experiences and also open the opportunities to have dialogue. This is the role that theater plays in a democracy.”
‘I feel for the people’
In Mankato, the crowd — more than 100 strong — was a mix of ardent culture lovers and people who rarely go to the theater.
Eric Hix, 32, who works as an unloader at a family business in Shakopee, came to the performance straight from work wearing his high-visibility safety vest.
“I feel happy and sad,” Hix said afterward, explaining that the performances were strong but the content heart-wrenching. “I feel for the people who’re losing their jobs.”
Karen Anderson, who works in administration at Minnesota State University, Mankato, was weepy after the performance.
“My family will tell you that I cry at things on the Hallmark Channel, but this is so heartbreaking,” she said. “I feel for the young people [in the play] who want to go to college. I want to grab them and tell them, ‘It’s difficult, but go!’ ”
“Sweat” is a play that touches on issues that have roiled the national conversation. NAFTA is a big subject, especially as it relates to job displacement. But there also are fraying relations over race and gender. As factories and plants close, people drink, get angry and get in cycles that spin out of control. Drugs and jails impact the characters’ lives. Prejudice rises to the fore.
In a 30-minute talkback after the performance, Minnesotans spoke candidly about how “true” and “real” the dialogue felt. One person noted that in a capitalist society, the big people make the decision and the small folks fight over the scraps. A woman from Sleepy Eye mentioned that her mother used to work at the town’s Del Monte plant. The family began to suffer after she was injured on the job.
Kristie and Percy Smith, a couple recently relocated from Atlanta to Mankato — she’s an English professor, he a software engineer — were heartened to see a play of this caliber in their new town.
“We’ve seen shows on Broadway, and this is right up there,” she said.
“It hits you in the gut,” he said.
For Eustis, touring “Sweat” to Minnesota is personal.
“Minnesota is in my bones and blood and history,” he said in an e-mail this week. “It means the world to me to bring the work I care about most back to the state where I was born and raised.”
Rochester: 6 p.m. Fri., Heintz Center Commons, Rochester Community and Technical College, 1926 Collegeview Rd. E., thepublic.nyc/sweatrochester.
St. Cloud: 1 p.m. Sat., Great River Regional Library, 1300 W. St. Germain St., thepublic.nyc/sweatstcloud.
Tickets: Free, but reservations recommended via links listed above.