Oregon Shakespeare Festival Explores Culture And Class

Oct 1, 2015

The final two plays of this OSF season explore gritty corners of contemporary American life.  In The Happiest Song Plays Last (Thomas Theatre) Quiara Alegria Hudes mines her own biography to counterpose the separate journeys of Yaz and her cousin Elliot out of and back to their Puerto Rican neighborhood in north Philadelphia. In Sweat (Bowmer Theatre) Lynn Nottage mirrors the depressed city of Reading, Pennsylvania, where she spent several years interviewing its struggling people.  

  Although both plays dramatize the challenge of surviving in the shallows of the social mainstream, the outcomes differ radically.  The Happiest Song earns its title by forgrounding the consolations of ethnic culture.  Sweat, on the other hand, portrays a seething melting pot constrained by economic class. 

The Happiest Song earns its title by foregrounding the consolations of ethnic culture. Sweat, on the other hand, portrays a seething melting pot constrained by economic class.

  The Happiest Song shuttles between the house Yaz (a sunny Nancy Rodriguez) took over from her Aunt Ginny and  locations in Jordan, where Elliot (a hyper Daniel Duque-Estrada), a Marine veteran wounded in Iraq, stars in a film about that war.  Yaz wants to become the community catalyst Ginny was: her door is never locked and she cooks for all in need.  To replenish herself, she turns to the older musician and counselor, Agustin (the irresistible Armando Duran).  Meanwhile Elliot rides out post-traumatic flashbacks, and falls in love with Shar (the grounded Tala Ashe), a young American actress with both wealth and Arab roots.  He also becomes friends with Ali (a transcendent Barzin Akhavan), advisor to the film and an Iraqi refugee, at risk with his family of deportation.

Internet platforms keep the two worlds in touch as does director Shishir Kurup’s staging of brief, silent encounters between the two sets of characters during scene shifts.  Structurally, however, the connection is tenuous.  It is in a blithe flash-mob spirit that Elliot and Shar fly to Cairo, business class, to get in on the fall of Mubarak. Then they head for the States, leaving behind the tumult of the Middle East and the humbly heroic Ali, seemingly oblivious to whatever horrors lie ahead him.  At home Agustin has succumbed to a heart attack, and with him dies his hope of fathering a child with Yaz to carry on the Puerto Rican folk legacy. The picture brightens with the arrival of a pregnant Shar, and Yaz bestows Agustin’s guitar-like cuatro on Elliott.  As lights fade, he plucks only a single note, but it vibrates with the promises of a meaningful culture.

Though Yaz and Elliot experience intimations of spiritual wholeness, the play itself seems divided in tone.  On the one hand, there is Hudes’s devotion to her roots, to her high-energy, witty, real-life cousin, to their community, and especially to Agustin, in whom Duran creates a charming blend of self-effacement and self-assertion.  But the disorder of Sybil Wickersheimer’s set evokes a larger world in the grips of violent change, where suffering and injustice perhaps call into question the safe nostalgia of cultural solidarity. 

Chris (Tramell Tillman) gives his mom Cynthia (Kimberly Scott) a hug.
Credit Jenny Graham | Oregon Shakespeare Festival

  If their Puerto Rican heritage offers to buffer Elliot and Yaz against the chaos of the bigger picture in The Happiest Song, in Sweat, the culture of working class solidarity and pride, which put boots on the factory floors in Reading, Pennsylvania for generations, has been shattered.  In the wake of NAFTA, the Great Recession, and the relentless pursuit of corporate profit, a grim joke has made the rounds that the struggling 99 percent in the United States don’t turn against the one percent responsible for destroying the quality of their lives, but against each other.  It’s this fighting over crumbs that Nottage documents with heart-rending brilliance.

But Sweat is more than another requiem for the American Dream.  Under Kate Whoriskey’s perceptive direction, it’s a magnificent ensemble piece whose action moves inexorably forward even as it shuttles back and forth across a ten-year span. The opening scene, played appropriately against a brick wall, finds Jason (an ADD Stephen Michael Spencer) and Chris (an inward Tramell Tillman), white and black, being released from prison for an undisclosed crime.  Then time backpedals to uncover the circumstances that led to it and to introduce their mothers, Tracey (a sardonic Terri McMahon) and Cynthia (a resolutely buoyant Kimberly Scott), who have been best friends forever.  They and pal Jessie (an endearingly semi-comatose K. T. Vogt) have gathered as usual at Stan’s bar for the schmoozing and soothing without which factory labor would break down body and soul.  Chris and Jason check as the lifelong buddies they once were. 

Disturbances spark tension in this ritual of connection:  ugly rumors about their plant closing mix with talk that management plans to promote one person “from the floor” into its exalted ranks.  Both Cynthia and Tracey will apply.  Chris reveals that he’s been accepted into college—his aspirations threaten Jason. Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (a poignantly diminished Kevin Kenerly) has been on strike for two years over slashed wages and has fallen into addiction. Bartender Stan (the pitch-perfect Jack Willis) deploys tact, wisdom, and humor to defuse these potential bombs, but forces have been set in motion for collisions both inevitable and utterly surprising.

Yaz (Nancy Rodriguez) awaits Agustín and the evening.
Credit Jenny Graham | Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The selfless courage of Agustin and the generous efforts of Yaz sustain the culture of their birth and leaven The Happiest Song.  In Sweat, noble qualities, like Jessie’s wistfully recalled “sense of possibility,” have been strangled by the culture of maximized profit.  Even Cynthia, thinking she’s been chosen to rise within that “higher” culture, locks out her friends and her own son only to be dumped along with them into a pit of paranoia and addiction.  The mindful and modestly noble Stan is lost to brain damage.  There is perhaps one flicker of hope for us if not for these bereft human beings turned economic fodder:  the Latino Oscar, who once mopped up the bar, now runs it and is taking gentle care of Stan.  

Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)