Sweat and the Exonerated

. February 8, 2019.
Eastern Michigan University Theatre presents Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Sweat.
Eastern Michigan University Theatre presents Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Sweat.

Two shows ground today’s polarized political climate in the lives of people who struggle.

In these tense political times, politically charged theatre is perhaps the opposite of the escape people are looking for in their entertainment. But The Exonerated, to be performed in February at the University of Michigan and Sweat, to be performed in February at Eastern Michigan University, both deal with themes that have provided the undercurrent for much of the recent political discourse and could help us to understand our world’s current issues and put them into perspective. But there are other reasons that make these shows worth seeing.

True redemption story

Married couple Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s 2002 play The Exonerated tells the true story of six people who spent years on death row in Illinois before their eventual release after being declared innocent. Much like Moisés Kauffman’s celebrated play The Laramie Project, which used real people’s accounts of the aftermath of the brutal, homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard, The Exonerated is presented as a series of monologues delivered to the audience, taken from interviews, case files and other documents. The play was later made into a movie starring Brian Dennehey, Danny Glover, and Susan Sarandon. Blank and Jensen also wrote a book, Living Justice, about their experiences meeting the different former inmates, and how they began to craft what eventually became the play.

A time for Reading

Sweat, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner for drama, is Lynn Nottage’s look into the lives of steel workers in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania. (Nottage also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009 for Ruined, about women surviving war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.) Sweat focuses on two years — 1999, six years after NAFTA, the National Free Trade Agreement was signed into law, and 2008, when the housing market began to collapse. The play ties economic worries, racial tensions, the frustration of being forgotten by the government, together into a timely piece which demands understanding and reflection by the characters, whose American dreams never really panned out.

Unique storytelling

Each of these plays has its own unique way of telling its story, but they both do a remarkable job of providing insight into the struggles, pressures, and occasional triumphs of being, to borrow a descriptor, history’s casualties. Through no fault of their own, they have become invisible people in our country, and are now experiencing what it means to be left behind. These two plays could help us move toward more humility, understanding, and empathy for others; crucial steps if we are ever to heal the divisions in this country and move toward a brighter future.

The Exonerated, directed by Geoff Packard, plays at UM’s Arthur Miller Theatre in the Walgreen Drama Center from February 21st-24th. For tickets and more information, please visit https://events.umich.edu/event/52131.

Sweat, directed by Pirooz Aghssa, plays at the Sponberg Theatre in the Quirk Theatre Building at Eastern Michigan University from February 8th-10th and 14th-17th. For tickets and more information, please visit https://www.emich.edu/cmta/productions/2018season/sweat.php.

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