Sweat: There are no successful victims

“They took our jobs!”

Can you spot the victim in this picture?
  • Can you spot the victim in this picture?
  • Photograph by Peggy Ryan

Sweat is a great example of a play written for people who go to the theater but about people who would never go to the theater. In other words, this is a “blue-state” playwright writing about “red-state” characters for a “blue-state” audience. That’s not completely fair, but it’s one-hundred-percent true.


The setting is a factory town in Pennsylvania — yet again. We know this scenario well. Factory jobs are being moved to Mexico, and the whites aren’t happy about it. Then a black woman gets a promotion instead of a white woman. Bring on the victim narrative.

During the performance I kept thinking about an ancient South Park episode which featured the rallying cry, “They took our jobs!” That episode does, essentially, what this play does. It demonstrates the willingness of blue-collar Americans to play the victim, to their own demise.

The play covers familiar ground, but it’s ground which needs to be constantly rediscovered. What is that familiar ground? There are no successful victims. Everybody should know this by now, but it feels as though the social tide is running contrary to that.

Personal rights and the victimization of said rights are becoming the foundation of our social discourse. How many discussions start off with, “As a [fill in the blank] I feel like I’ve been mistreated”? (Read: victimized).

Here’s what you won’t hear very often: “As a person who bases his or her life on personal responsibility, I refuse to be victimized.” That’s the end of the discussion. There is no issue to be discussed if there is no victim.

Sweat addresses racial relations and I, as a white male of ultimate privilege, felt that the script was flipped in a most appropriate way. The black community and some elements of black leadership have been criticized for fostering a victim narrative. Sweat argues that a victim narrative can be found within the white community as well. Some might say we have a president who won an election off of a victim narrative which appealed to white America.

Sweat plays at San Diego Repertory Theatre through May 12.

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