Through clear plastic masks and staying at a distance, the African American Theatre Arts Troupe (AATAT) carried on its 30 year legacy of uplifting Black actors and stories.

In “Sweat,” a play by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, a group of steelworkers’ lack of job security fuels divisive racial tensions between longtime friends. While affirmative action in the workplace has existed for about 60 years, internalized racist stereotypes and structural racism undermines this effort to eliminate discrimination in a work environment. 

“Sweat” was pre-recorded and live streamed the opening night of Dec. 4 with a meet-and-greet at the end via Zoom.

With about 30 productions over 45 years under his belt, African American Theatre Arts Troupe (AATAT) producer, founder, and director Don Williams wanted to do a show that reflects ongoing issues in U.S. workplaces like racism and the hostility between employees and employers. To him, recognizing and acknowledging events like these is an important step toward progress as a community. 

“I try to bring history, relevant issues to the plate that we as a people have to deal with,” Williams said. “In order for you to move forward in your future you have to have an understanding of your past.”

In a later interview, Williams added, “Black theatre gives you an opportunity to really get a historical perspective of black people’s lives.”

The play flips between 2000 and 2008, revealing the prejudices that grow from perceived economic disparity. A group of friends working at a factory turn against one another as the plant threatens to lay people off and reduce salaries. Characters Tracey and Jessie, played by Nikki Freeman and Julia Bianco, grow resentful of their friend Cynthia when she receives a promotion while they remain on the verge of losing their own jobs. 

Tracey, a white woman upset by her lack of job security, claims the company only promoted Cynthia because she’s a Black woman. Anger hits a boiling point when Cynthia, played by Karen Blagmom, returns from a meeting with the board of supervisors of the plant and announces their plan to renegotiate the union’s contract. The characters then get into a yelling match, accusing Cynthia of betraying their friendship by taking a job off the factory floor. 

Inspiration for a plotline revolving around economic strain racial prejudice came from a small Rust Belt town in Pennsylvania. Playwright Lynn Nottage witnessed friends struggle financially and spoke with blue collar workers of Reading, PA, which was marked the poorest city in the country in 2011, shortly after the Great Recession.

“I stumbled upon a group of steelworkers who had been locked out of their plant for 93 weeks,” Nottage said in an interview with Interview Magazine. “I found that their story was incredibly compelling and representative of a lot of what I was hearing from other people in that they had been solidly middle class — they had completely and totally invested in the American dream — and then had found that the rug was really pulled out from under them. That’s what really led me to telling the story of ‘Sweat.’”

All the characters in “Sweat” deal with issues that are outside of their control like many are now dealing with during the job crisis created by the pandemic. Since the first shutdowns in March, service workers and small business owners have faced about 22 million layoffs and a third of full-time workers experienced pay cuts.  

The characters’ unpredictable circumstances reminded UCSC student actor John Bennett, who played Evan in the production, of his own experience. 

“I certainly think that one thing that’s relatable in this play is […] the stress of uncertainty,” Bennett said. “Because of COVID, I was literally homeless for a week. So, I think just the uncertainty of the situation is absolutely relatable.”

The next AATAT performance will tentatively take place in February, Williams said.

The African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) will present “School Girls; Or, African Mean Girls,” a production based in Ghana that uses comedic commentary on beauty pageants to address issues of bullying and colorism.