Losing More than a Paycheck: Race and Class Conflict in Two New Plays

We often think of deindustrialization as a phenomenon of the 1970s and 80s, but, as the recent announcement of the closing of the Carrier factory in Indiana reminds us, plants continue to downsize and close, and industrial workers continue to lose their jobs.   No doubt, the decline in manufacturing represents a major economic loss, not only for workers but also for their communities.  But the loss of jobs brings more than the loss of a paycheck.

Two new plays, both by African-American women, highlight the social costs of deindustrialization. Both are set in the early twenty-first century, in factories that are downsizing, and focus on how workers respond to the threat of losing their jobs. In Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, as four African-American Detroit auto workers talk in the breakroom in their stamping plant, they express conflicting views of work, the union, and solidarity.  Similar tensions emerge in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, set in a workers’ bar near a steel mill in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Over the course of a year, workers lose not only their jobs but also long-time friendships and hopes for the future when the company demands concessions, locks out the workers, and brings in new workers, immigrant and Latino-American, who will work for less.

In both plays, African-American workers have made gains in the workplace, only to find themselves caught between solidarity and opportunity.  Each play includes a character who has been promoted to supervisor, promotions that seem to promise not just individual upward mobility but an important next step for black workers, who had to fight for equal treatment with both their employers and their unions.  The two recently-promoted characters think they will be able to fight for, not with, their rank and file friends, but both discover the limits of their power.   In Sweat, Cynthia is assigned the terrible task of standing at the entrance of the mill and turning the workers away, literally locking out her friends.  When Reggie, in Skeleton Crew, stands up to his boss, who wants to push the most senior of the line workers to retire just months before she earns her 30-year-pension, he discovers his own vulnerability as a black man.  Reggie comes away from the argument shaken, certain that his boss has been frightened by his behavior, that he thinks “I’m that nigga.”

Morisseau focuses on African-American workers, while Nottage highlights the interconnections between race, gender, and class.  Sweat focuses on a close circle of workers, black and white, female and male, across two generations.  Two women who started working in the mill in the 1970s became best friends in part because they helped each other deal with the challenges of being some of the first women in the plant.  Yet their experiences are not identical.  While both Tracey and Cynthia remember how proud they were to get the job, for Tracey, who is white, that meant following her father into the mill and continuing a several-generations-long tradition of labor in the family.  In contrast, Cynthia remembers how getting a job in the mill “felt like I was invited into an exclusive club. Not many of us folks worked there. Not us.”  Both of their sons also work in the mill, but Cynthia’s son, Chris, wants to get a college degree and become a teacher, to continue his family’s path toward the middle class, while his friend Jason sees steelwork as a good and reliable job.

Their friendships and lives are disrupted, first by Cynthia’s promotion and then by the lockout, and loyalties built around gender and class fracture along racial lines. Tracey tells anyone who will listen that Cynthia was promoted because she is a minority, and she eggs Jason on when he starts a fight with Oscar, the Columbian-American busboy at the bar, who has crossed the picket line in pursuit of his own better life.  While Sweat shows how the loss of work undermines solidarity, the play also reminds us that, in the end, no one is likely to win.  By the time the play is done, the mill has closed, and everyone is struggling to get by, but now without the social network that had once been so important.

These plays are striking for several reasons.  Both playwrights use plant closings as a means of exploring inequality and the continuing struggles of the working class, and each was inspired by the writer’s personal interactions but also her political commitments.  Morisseau told the New York Times about meeting a woman in Detroit who was living in her car.  She was troubled to realize that “This is the Motor City. This is where people make cars. Now it’s become a city where people are living in their cars.”  The program for Sweat describes how Nottage was inspired to write the play, in part, because of an email she received from a friend who was struggling financially.  That message made her realize that “probably most of us are living two or three doors away from someone who is either in poverty or on the verge of poverty, and that’s the nature of the culture we’re living in right now.”

Both plays reflect the writers’ engagement with individuals and communities that had experienced the economic and social losses of deindustrialization. Nottage set her play in Reading because the U.S. Census identified it as the poorest city in the country.  She spent two years interviewing locals, including the locked out workers at a steel mill, and collecting images and stories. For Morisseau, Skeleton Crew completes a three-play sequence focused on black lives in Detroit.  In the program notes for the play, she writes that the talked with experts and United Auto Worker activists, as well as friends and acquaintances, about their experiences with the industry’s decline.  She describes the play as being “about the people behind the unions,” and she acknowledges that “there is more to the auto world than I could ever capture,” but she wants to “salute the story behind the play,” too. By engaging directly and thoughtfully with working-class communities, these playwrights honor the experiences and voices of working-class people.

Finally, these plays fill some problematic gaps in contemporary writing about the long-term effects of deindustrialization.  So many of the Rust Belt novels, stories, poems, and films produced in the last two decades focus on how deindustrialization affected white working-class men, and while there may be good reasons for that (especially the different histories of white and black industrial workers), we need to understand both the ways that deindustrialization has harmed African-American working-class people and how it influences the way race, gender, and class work together and against each other.  Skeleton Crew and Sweat provide both, and they do so in ways that reflect the political engagement and attention to the lived experiences that are central to working-class literature.

Sherry Linkon

This entry was posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy, Work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Losing More than a Paycheck: Race and Class Conflict in Two New Plays

  1. Working-Class Perspectives says:

    Both plays have recently ended their current runs, Skeleton Crew will have a return run at the Atlantic Theater in May and June this year, and Playbill reports that the Public Theater in New York may stage Sweat sometime next year.

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