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Fulton Theatre's 'Sweat' recalls local community's economic, racial struggle | Center Stage

The playwright for the Pulitzer Prize-winning production used Reading, Pennsylvania as the inspiration of economic downturn and racial tension.

LANCASTER, Pa. — "Three generations of people in your family made a living and suddenly that living is gone. What happens to people when suddenly that's not an option?"

Those words said by Charis Leos, who plays Tracey in the Fulton Theatre's latest production, "Sweat,"  illustrate what Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage used as inspiration for the play in 2011.

Nottage visited the Berks County community of Reading after learning about the city's poverty rate. That year, Reading had the highest poverty rate for a city its size at more than 40%, according to the New York Times

While the characters of the story may be fictional, the stories are not.

"She took actual interviews and composed this story off of people's real experiences," said Ché Lyons, who plays Cynthia in the show.

The play touches on life in a community like Reading after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. The deal paved the way for increased trade between Mexico, Canada and the United States. However, experts acknowledge industrial workers in many communities felt the affects — though, disagreements on just how much affect remain.

"The middle class is suddenly disappearing," Leos explained. "When you have a city that thrives on certain industries, what happens when those pick up and go?"

The actors and director of the show agree, with themes of economic strife, racism and simple survival, this isn't a play you come to just enjoy. They believe it's a story important to tell.

"It's basically holding up a mirror in a very real and very intense way," Leos said. "Blaming of specific groups for what's happening to us, that's how people think. It's what's happening in our country every day, which is why it's so timely."

Leos noted that her character isn't someone she usually would portray. She's been challenged by the play in a new way, as her character's racist views become more developed as the show reaches its conclusion.

It's that storyline, though, that Leos believes helps build the bridge between people who may think differently.

"Even at her [Tracey's] worst moment, I do have empathy with her because of what she perceives she's gone through," Leos said.

"Lynn tapped into something that everybody needs to experience and know," Lyons said.

Fulton Theatre's production run of "Sweat" ends April 24. For more information, you can visit their website.

And across the rest of the region, theatre companies continue their 2022 runs.

Theatre Harrisburg opens "Now and Then" this weekend.

Prima Theatre enters its second weekend of the rock show "Murder Ballad" through April 9.

Blue Man Group visits Hershey Theatre this weekend only, with performances through April 3.

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