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Play’s honesty triumphs over free trade

October 25, 2015
By
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2015. Sweat by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty. Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller. Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski. Video and Projections: Jeff Sugg. Sound Design: Michael Bodeen. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2015. Sweat by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty. Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller. Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski. Video and Projections: Jeff Sugg. Sound Design: Michael Bodeen. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat is a triumph of honesty about the slow, silent and devastating personal impacts of free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the one President Obama just signed.

Just ending its premiere season’s run at Oregon’s Ashland Shakespeare Festival, Nottage’s play portrays a group of friends and family members who are struggling from the effects of an earlier free trade agreement. This one led to rampant corporatism in Reading, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere across North America. The portrayal is riveting and it brought a full house in Ashland off their seats almost before the final curtain fell.

What resonates strongly is that Reading is a stand-in for many industrial towns and cities, including many in Canada, that were promised prosperity only to learn that the workers in those industries would have to pay for it with their salaries, health, and families as they watched their jobs drift offshore in ever-increasing numbers.

Free corporations from the shackles of government rules and regulations regarding trade and wealth will result, went the argument in favour of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Let the public be privatized. Let the rich rule the roost. All will be well.

Well, it wasn’t and it isn’t. President Reagan’s trickle down theory flooded upwards with free trade agreements, and President Clinton sucker punched the gullible public with his side deals for labour and the environment. Then Dubya opened the Empire’s legal gates so that his corporate friends could undo what was left of public protections.

Nottage uses two families, one black and one white, plus three individuals to reveal the fallacy of free trade and display the damages it does. She also reveals the damage done to a society that has long passed its due date on free enterprise capitalism becoming a fair and equitable economic system, as if that were ever a realistic possibility.

Gone are the industries run by managers who lived where they worked. When a far-away corporate board made a cost-cutting (read profit-increasing) decision, the working people of Reading felt it. And Nottage shockingly depicts how it unhinges the lives of all the players.

At the core of the action is an underlying racism that can be blamed on the unfettered free trade capitalism that holds North American communities like Reading in its compassionless grip.

When a black woman decides to take a promotion, a white colleague and friend turns on her spreading racist innuendo about how she got the job because she was black. When a young Hispanic man scabs on striking workers, he is subjected to racist attacks.

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Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage.

Nottage also unfolds the story of generations of families doing the same job and always having the security that comes with it. Then suddenly and silently they begin to feel the effects of free trade’s corporate freedom. They may not understand why it’s happening to them, but they soon know that it is irreversible. The unions that they and their families before them supported are shown as helpless to fight what free trade has wrought.

Much of the action in Sweat takes place in a local tavern not unlike the beer parlours I frequented in my youth. There, the families hear the wisdom of a bartender who sees clearly what is happening and shares their frustrations and their anguish. He is the fading conscience that has been extinguished by free trade corporatism.

Nottage has presented us with a vivid and compelling argument against Obama’s TPP, and the strongest reason to oppose such deals that benefit the rich few and cost the working many their lives.

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