In Lynn Nottage‘s Sweat, now playing at UNCG’s School of Theatre, a neighborhood bar serves as a container for friendship, workers’ rights, racism, rage, and heartbreak.

The powerful drama moves clearly back and forth in time, and the time we are in is never confusing. Starting in 2008 with separate meetings between a parole officer and two different parolees, Sweat then moves back to 2000, the year that the events occurred that led to the men’s incarceration.

In the first scene, parole officer Evan, ably played by Gary Harris, interviews an uncooperative, tightly wound Jason, well-played by Colin Smith. Jason has a job, Aryan Brotherhood face tats, a black eye, and a busted lip. Evan’s second meeting is with Chris, played by Andre Otabor who exhibited remarkable acting skills embodying the differences between Chris in 2000 and Chris in 2008. The pre-incarceration man exudes optimism and confidence, brimming with youthful vitality. The latter Chris fidgets and seems uncomfortable in his skin. He has no job and no place to stay.

The relationship between Chris and Jason and the mystery of how they ended up in prison is hinted at in this scene. To paraphrase Chris: In one moment, your whole life can change, and you spend years in an endless loop of “What if? What if? What if?”

Then it’s back to 2000 to explore the mystery and the lives of Chris, Jason, the bar workers, three friends who work in a factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, and, to a lesser degree, a drug addict/family member.

The headlines of the day scroll across the back wall of the bar, and voiceovers of newscasters and politicians pontificate on falling wages, the economy, and immigration. The voices and projections fade out, and we are brought into a birthday party for Tracey, one of the factory workers.

The scene begins amiably enough. Tracey and her friends have a tradition of celebrating birthdays at the bar. Tracey, played vividly and emphatically by Libby Otos, is irascible, bordering on hostile. With her bitterness over the devolving work situation and her entitlement regarding her job, she appears to be chronically on the verge of violence. Tracey wants to exclude newcomers, particularly BIPOC and immigrants, from factory work – it’s a closed shop – and then she is completely baffled when those same excluded people decide to cross the picket line when the workers go on strike later in the play.

Tracey’s friend, Jessie, played by Yuliya Donovan, is slumped over a table, clearly very drunk. While Tracey harangues Stan (Chris Donovan), the bartender, about conditions at the factory, Jessie chimes in nonsensically and hilariously.

Donovan was quite good as the sweet-tempered peacemaker Stan. In the midst of his querulous, quarreling customers, Stan does his best to maintain a neutral stance, still coming to the defense when some are unduly attacked. Donovan was also the fight choreographer and has done a convincing job with the fight scene.

Conflicts begin to surface when Cynthia (Willa Bost) reveals that she plans to apply for a management job that has recently opened up at the factory. Tracey doesn’t want the job, but she doesn’t want Cynthia, who is both Black and has less tenure than Tracey, to have it either.

The other characters are the hard-working Colombian-American Oscar (Marcus Jackson), a bar worker, and the down-and-out Brucie (Julius Smith), Chris’ father and Cynthia’s estranged husband.

Sweat started life at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2015 and made its Broadway debut in 2017. The brilliance of the show, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 (but did not win a TONY, though nominated), is how clearly it shows the wages of greed and rage, and Evan (the parole officer) warns Jason of another dangerous feeling: shame.

It also shows how some people in power pit workers against one another, telling the White workers they need to behave or the Black workers will take their jobs, and the Black workers that the immigrants will take their jobs. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps workers divided instead of united against management. It’s a sad, old story.

As the year 2000 progresses, the factory workers strike and deal with the fallout from that: dwindling savings and actually losing jobs to strikebreakers. But they keep coming to the bar for company and commiseration.

In Act II, the long-dreaded violence finally breaks out. Although the audience has some clues as to what might happen, I won’t spoil it for you. With any luck, you’ll be as surprised as I was – and as stricken.

In the hands of UNCG’s School of Theatre, Sweat was a visceral, illuminating production. Director Mya Brown has staged the show inventively and drawn excellent performances from her actors, both students and pros.

Sound design by Fatou Njie is excellent with the use of period music and other supporting effects, as is the projection design by Helen Erikson. Scene design is by Dani Vanass, lighting by Matt Middleton, costumes by Stella Vatnsdal, and hair and makeup by Emma Estelle Beneck.

The Sprinkle Theatre in the Brown Building at UNCG is a great place for this kind of in-your-face drama. The audience was arranged on three sides, and the seats were super-comfy, always a plus for the theatregoers.

Sweat continues through Saturday, April 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.