Fall semester of my first year at Albion College, I took history professor Wes Dick’s First-Year Seminar “Albion and the American Dream.” We talked about how Albion’s story was America’s story; Albion’s hopes and joys being America’s hopes and joys; and Albion’s struggles being America’s struggles.
That is, we learned the history of the place we were to live in for the next four years.
Four years later, I’m just now beginning to see how that history has impacted the community where I live. It took the arts to make that history visible and expose that history’s humanity. I watched “SWEAT,” and it changed the way I view Albion.
“SWEAT” is a story of working-class America. The majority of the characters work in Olstead’s steel-tubing factory, just like their fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers did, too. Most of the scenes take place in Stan’s Bar, a gathering place for the steel mill workers to get together for drinks. The stability of work, friendships and money—all directly and indirectly provided by the steel mill— is challenged by layoffs at Olstead’s.
The play was performed a few weeks ago at the Marshall Opportunity High School (formerly Albion High School), with the cafeteria as the stage. The two entrances to the set came up through the audience, immersing play-goers in the performance. The set was a simple one—a few chairs, tables and a bar where most scenes take place. It was a no-frills performance: no fancy lighting; no extravagant scene changes. This, I think, made the play a bit more accessible and approachable for the people of Albion, and it was done intentionally.
The Public Theatre (the organization that produced “SWEAT”) acknowledges the fact that much of our dramatic art is performed on the exclusive, expensive stages of the nation’s metropolitan cities. Often times, this leaves rural, out-of-the-way, low-income communities without access to the dramatic arts.
Recognizing that we cannot wait for people to have the time, flexibility or money to go to the theatre, the Public Theatre’s Mobile Unit is going to the people. One of the singular qualities of “SWEAT” and the Mobile Unit, is the intentional effort to make the dramatic arts accessible, affordable and approachable to the places most like the one portrayed in the performance: historically underserved, rural, Rust Belt communities of the upper Midwest. On its tour, “Sweat” performed in 18 upper Midwest Rust Belt cities.
“SWEAT’s” setting is Reading, Pennsylvania, but it could just as easily have been Albion. Stan’s Bar could have just as easily been Cascarelli’s, Charlie’s or the Leisure Hour Club. Olstead’s could might as well have been Harvard Industries (formerly Albion Malleable Iron Company), which left Albion in 2002.
That is, “SWEAT” told the story of Reading, but it’s really the story of Albion, too: A nation-wide narrative of what it means to live, work and sweat in a Rust Belt city of the 21st century.
“SWEAT” broke the fourth wall but not in the traditional sense of actors speaking directly to the audience. It broke the fourth wall by appealing to a shared sense of working-class identity and economic hardship between the actors and the audience, some of whom were former employees of Albion’s now-closed Harvard Industries. It pulverized the fourth wall, and as the dust settled, the stories and lives of the people who had lived and worked in Albion’s factories were made visible.
This history was made visible by what the Public Theatre calls a “tailored artistic engagement activity,” which is a fancy way of saying that people talked about what the play made them feel. There is not a doubt in my mind that people said things in that cafeteria after the play that they would not have said prior to watching it.
An older man with graying hair and dressed in a hoodie motioned for the mic. The former worker of Harvard Industries said the play—because of its honest portrayal of the emotional and economic hardship that occurs when a major employer leaves town— made him reflect about parts of Albion’s history more than a decade removed.
The most powerful thing I remember him saying was that this production showed him that other places went through and are going through the same life-redefining hardships that Albion has been through. It showed him that Albion is not alone.
This man was not the only citizen to speak. Men and women, black and white, old and young. Former Harvard Industries administrators and floor workers, Albion College students and faculty. They all spoke. On this night, the theatre possessed the power to engender dialogue between often disconnected groups of people.
“SWEAT” is a piece of art created about working-class people for working-class people, and consequently, it possesses the ability to connect to the working-class in a beautiful way. The hope, now, is that by making this history visible—exposing it in the flickering fluorescent lights of a Rust Belt high school’s cafeteria—we can begin to deal with it. The question then becomes: how are supposed to deal with that history? “SWEAT” addresses this question.
The last scene of the play converges on Stan’s Bar in the year 2008. At this point, the characters have split up in the aftermath of an emotionally (and racially) charged fight scene eight years earlier, after Olstead’s departure from Reading in 2000. The characters are all a bit worse for wear: Two have just gotten out of an eight-year prison sentence. Most don’t have jobs; Substance abuse is rampant.
The one thing the characters do that seems to help them deal with the new reality of their city is talk about the past. Sometimes the talking is forced with their parole officer. At other times, the dialogue is between mother and son or husband and wife. The conversations are rarely comforting or easy to listen to. They’re ugly and profane.
“SWEAT” does not offer any silver bullet solutions for how to “fix” Albion. It does offer some suggestions. Diversity is a strength, not a weakness. And perhaps most importantly: “SWEAT” forces us to acknowledge where Albion has been to better prepare us in finding out where we’re headed.