LYNN NOTTAGE wrote her sizzling new play Sweat three years ago on a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There are moments when artists such as Nottage write at the height of their powers and seem to prophesy about the life of humanity. Certainly Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America accomplished such prophetic feats, and it’s not a stretch to say that Nottage’s Sweat could do the same. Set in the Rust Belt of the United States, with the decline of manufacturing jobs reeling out of control, Sweat may be the timeliest play of this New York theater season, opening March 4 on Broadway, at Studio 54.
Nottage got the idea to write the play after hearing that Reading, Pa., is one of the most impoverished towns in the U.S. We witness on stage the birth of Trump’s America, rife with economic hardship in a community that is doing all it can to hang on to its identity, and losing it at every turn.
This pressing drama is set between the years 2000 and 2008, shifting back and forth in time to reveal just how the devastating economic hardships of the 21st century were taking hold. Most of the scenes are set in the town’s local watering hole, where we witness the local culture, friendships breaking down, and a serious hate crime that lands two of the characters in jail. We follow these two directionless young men who are seeking a life that yields more than just another job. We also follow a trio of female friends who have supported one another through it all on the factory floor and in the intimacies of life.
During this Holy Week, Christians around the world turn inward to reflect on the mystery and miracle of the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Those two surpassing events are more than good enough to occupy the mind and heart of every believer.
But they are not all that Jesus did in these eventful days. As any student of the scriptures will know, Jesus did not go quietly to the cross. Three days before his execution, he stormed the temple and challenged the seat of theocratic power in Jerusalem, condemning the pharisaic elite who "preach, but do not practice" and "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the people's shoulders." (Matt. 23:3-4) He accused as hypocrites leaders who make token offerings yet "have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness … Inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." (Matt. 23:23,25)
In his final teaching before the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday began, Jesus embraced those who are oppressed and cautioned his disciples that acts of love and mercy are the measure of a heart touched by grace. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:35-40)
In honor of the occasion, Congress will close its doors and lawmakers will head home to be with their constituents for the Easter recess. If inside reports are to be trusted, they will leave Washington "armed with excuses" that explain away the latest fiscal fiasco, and the people will have little to say in reply. I pray it isn't so.
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Scripture constantly should be challenging our assumptions about our lives and in every aspect of society. Transformation is needed on a personal and also a political level. Scriptural priorities shouldn't be glossed over in order to protect political ideologies and comfort zones.
If we believe that what Jesus taught remains just as relevant today as it did when he physically walked among us, then it should still be a comfort to those on the margins of society and offensive to the wealthy and powerful. That doesn't mean that the wealthy and powerful can't be good and faithful followers of Christ, but Jesus did warn them that their walk will be a hard one. Wealth and power bring unique and difficult temptations ... If you never feel uncomfortable when you read the Gospels then you aren't paying attention.
We're off and running. I am headed for the airport to go to Detroit for the first leg in our book tour for Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street-A Moral Compass for the New Economy.