What Happened?: How we got from 2000 to 2020

“I met the steelworkers who would become the inspiration for the play — middle-aged white men who shared stories that absolutely broke my heart. I hadn’t anticipated I would be moved in the way I was. I hadn’t anticipated that, sitting with them in a circle, I would feel we had a shared narrative — one of struggle, disillusionment, and frustration with our government and our society.” — Lynn Nottage

In a country as divided as America feels right now, moments of genuine connection and understanding with people outside of our regular social circles feels rare, if not impossible. This very feeling is what makes Lynn Nottage’s Sweat at such a moving play to witness. For some in Boston, steelworkers in Reading, Pennsylvania feel far removed from our daily trials and tribulations. And yet, both our actions — the ways we vote, consume, protest, live — and their actions affect us all.

Sweat takes place in Berks County, Pennsylvania over the course of two election years: 2000 when Berks county went for George W. Bush, and 2008 when the county supported Barack Obama. In 2011, the largest city in Berks — Reading — made news for being the poorest city per capita in America, leading Nottage to visit and write Sweat. In 2015, it premiered at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. A year later during the 2016 election, Sweat would prove to be an eerily prescient piece of writing, as Reading swung back politically from blue to red. The issues tackled by the play — racism, xenophobia, unemployment, and disenfranchised white anger blistering into violence — were again central players in the outcome of the election.

American steel has always been considered a bellwether for America’s politics. The industry had its first big boom after foreign factories were knocked out by bombs in World War II, leaving American mills as the only option. By the late 1940s, America was making half of the world’s steel, but the boom wouldn’t last forever. Over the next 70 years, the industry suffered a steady, but alarming, decline — an industry that once employed over 700,000 Americans, today only employs 145,000. That said, steel was not Reading’s only industry, and its economic decline was kicked off in the 1970s when the Reading Railroad Company (yes, like the one in Monopoly) collapsed. This bankruptcy, coupled with the deindustrialization of America as a whole, caused Reading to become a city that thought of itself in the past tense. As Nottage recalls, when she would ask interviewees to tell her about the city, many residents began their sentences with “Reading was…”

Many factory workers blame foreign trade for hurting the American steel industry, specifically the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which eliminated most tariffs on trade between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. As Stan, Sweat’s steelworker-turned-bartender, gripes, “You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico, whatever, it’s this NAFTA bullshit —.” Critics griped too that NAFTA would cost the country jobs as companies moved their factories out of the United States. The reality of NAFTA’s impact however is difficult to completely pin down; Josh Bivens, director of research at the Economic Policy Institute, remains critical of the agreement but also admits that, “NAFTA is just this very visible political symbol that people take as the stand-in for all the pressures globalization put on American workers” — a semi-guilty scapegoat for valid working class frustrations.

The mixed truths of the effects NAFTA had on the American economy and job market nonetheless became a flashpoint in the 2016 election. Both Trump and Bernie Sanders railed against NAFTA, blaming it for some of the decline seen in American manufacturing, and both candidates promised to heavily revise the trade agreement if they were to be elected, much to the support of current and past steelworkers in key swing states. When Sanders lost the nomination, Trump became the only candidate explicitly campaigning on the promise to revise the deal. The effects of this were perhaps seen in how Berks County voted in the election. Obama had won Berks by 9% in 2008 and lost it by a small margin in 2012; Hillary Clinton lost the county by 10.2% in 2016.

In 2020, it’s unclear whether steelworkers will stick with Trump or move on; or like Stan in Sweat, they may not vote at all “cuz no matter what lever [they] pull it will lead to disappointment.” Regardless of the outcome, the issues found in Sweat will likely continue to resonate; America hasn’t changed much in 20 years after all. But if, like Nottage, we find a way to sit with people unlike us, and listen to their stories, maybe it’ll start.

— J. Sebastián Alberdi

Jennifer Regan and Tyla Abercrumbie

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