Character building in 'Sweat'
Sweat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage, gives stellar examples of successful characterization. With the use of distinct dialog, actions, and belief structures for each of the characters, the characters (on paper and on stage) stand out as unique individuals that the audience can identify with. Three exemplary characters—Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie—are all working class women from the same town that are successfully depicted as different people and not as one-note stock characters.
Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie are friends, coworkers, and practically like family to one another. Their closeness comes from the aspects of their lives that are similar: they grew up in the same town, they are from the same economic background, they are all women, and they all work at the same factory. The last two aspects combined also gives them closeness—they are women working together at a factory (a place usually known for employing men).
Yet, with all their similarities, their differences become apparent as the play goes on. Some of these differences are obvious: Cynthia is Black while Tracey and Jessie are white, and Cynthia and Tracey are mothers while Jessie is not. Jessie is also a struggling alcoholic while Tracey drinks some and Cynthia doesn’t drink at all.
Audiences may really begin to see the individual traits and personalities of each woman when a management position opens at their workplace. This is when their differences begin to stand out. Nottage writes in Act 1 Scene 2:
Cynthia: Who knows? I might apply.
Tracey: What?! Get out of here.
Cynthia: Why the hell not? I’ve got twenty-four years on the floor.
Tracey: Well, I got you beat by two. Started in ’74, walked straight outta high school. First and only job. Management is for them. Not us.
This is where a divide is first heavily featured for the friends. Cynthia has hopes and dreams beyond working a grueling nine to five. Her priorities differ from Tracey and Jessie who didn’t even think of applying for the management job. Even though they have all been working in the same place for some time, Cynthia is not content and decides to do something about it instead of just drinking her sorrows away. In Act 1 Scene 2, Nottage writes:
Tracey: Frank can kiss my ass. Jesus, haven’t you done enough overtime?
Cynthia: Babe, come hell or high water, I’m taking that cruise through the Panama Canal this summer.
Tracey: One more drink. One. It’s my birthday. C’mon, c’mon. Stan, pour this bitch another drink!
When the plant begins to lay off workers, the three women react uniquely to the situation. This is partly due to Cynthia receiving the management position, while the other two fear losing their jobs. Through their dialog and reaction to one another, the audience can identify where each of the characters is coming from—that although they are best friends with similar backgrounds, their world views and main concerns are different. This is what helps to make them distinctive individuals.
Within the group, Cynthia is the most obviously distinct. However, the differences between Tracey and Jessie, while subtle, do stand. While they both drink, Jessie drinks more. Her alcoholism isn’t just portrayed by her drinking but by her actions towards the others and her words. People also treat Jessie differently from Tracey because of her drinking. This significant element creates a variation between the two characters.
Jessie is also more forgiving than Tracey, especially when it comes to Cynthia. Tracey is hurt and feels betrayed. Jessie may feel similarly, but she takes the situation in stride, not begrudging Cynthia’s determination and conceding to her own self-made destiny. In Act 2 Scene 6, Nottage writes:
Jessie: ... Tracey pretends like it ain’t a big deal. But, I can tell she don’t like taking orders from Cynthia. And don’t spread this, but things haven’t been so good between them.
Audiences seek to identify with characters and see them as real people, especially in plays, where characters’ actions, tones, and moods are seen and heard instead of imagined. The characterization in Sweat is successful because each character is written with personalized traits, as seen through the characters’ actions and dialog. The characters of Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie are the best examples within the play due to their similarities and differences to on another. These differences are highlighted by the way each woman carries herself, speaks, and emotes. With these traits in place, the audience can recognize and identify with each of the characters as unique individuals.
Nottage, Lynn. Sweat. (2017) [Kindle Fire version]. E-ISBN: 978-1-55936-854-4.