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Different Coasts, Same Problems

‘Sweat’ Community Conversation Tackles Economic and Industrial Hardships in Los Angeles

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L-R: Mark Loranger, Manuel Pastor, Alma Hernández, and Jocelyn L. Buckner speaking at Center Theatre Group as part of the 'Sweat' Community Conversation "Surviving Day to Day in L.A."

Photo by CBGraphy.

It’s easy to take the cold weather attire and accents of the characters of Sweat to mean that the problems they face are endemic to industrial East Coast towns. Yet the reality for so many Angelenos is all too similar to that of the Reading, Pennsylvania working-class characters in Lynn Nottage’s searing play (onstage August 29 – October 7, 2018 at the Mark Taper Forum).

As part of our Community Conversation series, Center Theatre Group organized Surviving Day to Day in L.A., a panel of local economic experts and professionals on September 12, 2018. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Jocelyn L. Buckner, theatre professor at Chapman University and editor of A Critical Companion to Lynn Nottage. The subject of the evening’s conversation was engaging the issues that are pertinent in Sweat to what’s actually happening here in our own local communities in L.A. and in Southern California, as Buckner explained at the outset.

The panelists began by addressing the economic struggles many Californians face. As housing prices have continued rising amidst tumult in the job market and stagnant wages, there is a fundamental disconnect with affordability and trying to survive in this wonderful place that all of us call home explained Mark Loranger, CEO of Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing resources for homeless and low-income workers struggling to maintain steady employment.

At the same time, the panelists all noted a change in cultural attitudes toward the working class. We’re seeing a disinvestment in the whole [of society] and going back to a more individualistic focus, said Alma Hernández, Executive Director for SEIU California, a union representing service workers across several different industries.

Lack of hope is one aspect of economic precarity that we don't give enough weight to.

Dr. Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at USC and author most recently of State of Resistance, agreed. For my dad’s generation, there was this sense that this was an economy that was growing, there would be a chance to send their kids to college, said Pastor. There was a sense that the next generation would do better. That’s changed with the economic hardships of the last few decades. That lack of hope is one aspect of economic precarity that we don’t give enough weight to, he said.

Buckner noted that Nottage found pervasive hopelessness in Reading while conducting interviews with residents and research that would later become the basis for Sweat. So much of what she heard from folks was the phrase, ‘Reading was… Reading was this. Reading was that.’ But not ‘Reading is,’ or ‘Reading could be,’ said Buckner.

Nottage chose to focus on Reading after reading an article that listed the town as the most poverty-stricken city in the U.S. after the industrial economic downturn. Pastor noted how all too familiar that reality had become for many in the greater L.A. area. The largest concentration of manufacturing employment in the U.S. in the late 1980s was Los Angeles, noted Pastor. We had auto, steel, tires, and we were hit with successive waves of deindustrialization.

And even as the economy in L.A. has improved, declining public resources and shifting public attitudes have left the working class worse off than before. As the jobs come back, the wages are lower, the benefits are lower, healthcare costs are uncontrollable; we as a society aren’t valuing that work, said Hernández. We say there’s value in it, but then aren’t putting the resources behind it. How do we compensate for that? What others things can we do to make sure workers have dignity?

Additionally, two of the play’s characters are returning to Reading after spending time in prison. Loranger noted that economic struggles can be considerably harder for those with criminal convictions everywhere. Even after serving sentences, formerly incarcerated people face reduced rights and stigma that hinders their economic and social viability for the rest of their lives. And yet we expect that they will go back to their community of release and be a father or a mother and be contributing member of society, and yet they can’t do it, they can’t get a job, explained Loranger.

[L.A.] is place where you can really forge change because you are tackling things at the cutting edge.

Despite all of the discussion of harsh realities and concerning trends, the panelists shared a sense of hope and drive for enacting changes for the better in L.A. You drive down the same streets I drive, and there are places where if you speak English you are the minority, and most of us love that, beamed Hernández. That embracing of diversity and opportunity—this is still and place where you can dream.

I was once asked why I love L.A., and I said, ‘Because it has the world’s biggest problems.’ This is place where you can really forge change because you are tackling things at the cutting edge, explained Pastor. The reason why we’re here [at Center Theatre Group] as service providers and activists and academics is that we know that the storytelling, the deep connection, is how we get to see each other and recognize our common pain.

Loranger noted that the sharing of pain and hardship was far from just an artistic exercise or indulgence: The reason I am doing my work in L.A. as opposed to somewhere else is we live in a place that is willing to experiment and try new things, but is also willing to be self-critical enough to say, ‘What we’re doing ain’t good enough, and we’re willing to do better.’

Watch the whole conversation below.

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