MXO ‘Up Close And Personal’: Robert Barry Fleming And Brooks Brantly Co-Stars Of Sweat At Cleveland Play House!

By Ms. Osupa Nia

Posted October 30th 2018





MXO:     Good Morning.

ROBERT & BROOKS:  Good Morning!

MXO:    Robert how are you doing? It was nice to meet face to face at ‘Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black.’

ROBERT: it was my pleasure.

BROOKS: So you saw ‘The Woman In Black?’

MXO:    Yes, I did see that production. I have a story up the website now. I did pretty good Robert (laugh).

ROBERT:  Thank you for your support and we can’t wait for you to see ‘Sweat.’

MXO      Yes, I’m looking forward to the that.

MXO:    All right let’s jump right into this.  Thank you for this interview; ‘Sweat’ is a contemporary play.  Lynn Nottage started her research in 2011.  Factory workers in the Rust Belt, the blue collar laborer.  Ohio and Pennsylvania are a the center of the Rust Belt.  Did that fact have an influence on the selection of this play in the 2018-2019 season.

ROBERT:  Absolutely! We knew that things on the project spoke very deeply to the things we’ve been seeing in Greater Cleveland.  But really in those areas like Lorain, Canton and Youngstown. We’ve seen what’s happening in those communities. So it seemed like an urgent and compelling story that many of us would have a real connection with.

BROOKS:  My mother is from Ohio and my father is from Pennsylvania.

MXO:    Oh wow.

BROOKS:  Oh yeah…steelworkers definitely.

MXO:    Where are you from Brooks?

BROOKS:  I’m originally from Illinois. I’m a military brat. So I moved around a little bit but mostly Illinois.

MXO:    Actually, in Ohio it started in the 80’s.  We lost major steel mills in the 80’s.  But you’d be surprised how manufacturing is all over the county, small and medium sized. Okay.  Moving along can you tell us about ‘Sweat?’

ROBERT:  The narrative is a group of factory workers who meet in a local bar.  They are all ages, all ethnicities.  We have multiple things about not only the steel working decline of those communities that were supported by that industry.  But also how that intersects with incarceration, issues around health with the opioid crisis, and any number of things that intersects when people are economically compromised. Lynn has really etched a really poignant, deeply incisive portrait of what communities who have been impacted by such inequities and challenges. She really has been quite prolific in her exploration of this particular intersection of social ills and challenges. And the impact that has had on multiple communities whether they be African American, working class, white communities even the immigrant and those who are of Latinx descent who are integral to those communities prior to immigration and who have been there as long as many of us.

BROOKS:  I feel like one of the main themes of this story is the struggle to maintain bonds. It’s very much about family.  Some by blood and some by just the connection and the circumstances that people find themselves in and what happens to the connection whey you are put in a desperate situation.  It’s a human tendency to look to you left and your right, possibly shift blame or it is a struggle to maintain that sense of community when the community has been jeopardized.

MXO:    And sometimes you look out for yourself and the community goes out the window. Now ‘Sweat’ premiered in 2015 during the campaign for the 2016 presidential election. Is this production reflective of Trump’s base?

ROBERT:  Well that’s what is interesting about great playwriting and great playwrights. Tony Kushner like Lynn has been so prolific he says that if he had a drag name it would be eerily prescient because they say that about his work so often.  And I think that’s absolutely true about Lynn Nottage’s work.  There are lines in this play that had a certain resonance in its debut that now getting in the shift of solid political and economic condition of the US; those same lines, no re-writing have another kind of deep impact. I had the pleasure of being a part of the facilitation of the world premiers when it went from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to Arena Stage where I was working. I saw what kind of impact on audiences there and I have no doubt the impact these many years later that it’s going to have her in Cleveland. It’s going to be rather tremendous.


BROOKS:  I think it was our first day of rehearsal and our fearless leader, Laura Kepley-The Director, said (and it’s one-hundred percent true.) ‘this is probably the most important play presently, right now! It relates directly to what’s been happening the last three years and what’s to  come to light given what happened with the 2016 election. I still have family in the Rust Belt. I’ve lost some people because of what’s been happening and there’s been certain divides and certain bonds that have been broken.

MXO: Absolutely and both of the states are battleground states and it appears ‘Sweat’ is reflective of the demographics of Ohio and Pennsylvania. As a note Lynn Nottage plays seem to reflect the plight of marginalized people. Brooks tell us about the character you portray in ‘Sweat.’

BROOKS:  My character’s name is Chris.  Chris, like all the characters in the play is a very complex character. He’s new to the floor. He’s been working there a couple of years. The main question that Chris has to deal with or struggle with is do I take the time to stand up for union workers or do I have to potentially look for more fertile grounds.  He finds himself at odds with the community he bases his whole identity around: all these union workers, his family, his mother. It’s sort of operating with a sense of guilt for wanting to progress and possibly look on to greener pastures. How long should he keep up the fight. Will it be to his detriment which we find out one way or another, or will he find his own way.

MXO:    I love it…I like that tease (laughter).  I look forward to seeing ‘Sweat.’ Now Robert I’m probably going to talk to you more throughout the course of the season so I would like to focus on Brook because he’s going to be in and our of here.  Brooks you’ve studied theatre at Morehouse?

BROOKS:  Funny right after this show I go back to teach a little bit at Morehouse and we are actually looking at putting on a Black Box production of this play.  So, I’ll definitely have some gem hopefully to drop when I get there. But, yes Morehouse is the place of my rebirth.

MXO:    You also studied theater at UCONN as well as film and tv acting.  A majority of your acting experience has been theatre. Is the theatre where your heart is?

BROOKS:  Theatre is my first love. As a natural I like the responsibility that the actor has on stage. It’s all on you. If I want to pro-focus that’s my responsibility. If I want to keep the ball in the air it’s on the bodies on stage that can do that. Of course, you have an amazing production team, crew, designers…ect. But in terms of the actual text, I love the responsibility we have. We have sort of a one shot, or kill kind of mentality. I sort of like to approach it like an athlete. I want the ball. That’s sort of what theatre does for me.

MXO:    I see. You know in theatre you’re out there and it’s one shot.  You can’t go in and edit. Well Brooks while in Cleveland hopefully you get a chance to visit The Karamu House, the oldest African American theatre in the United States.

BROOKS:   I have the short list already. I’m going to be quite the tourist once we get through rehearsals and the show opens. I’ll have more time to explore.

MXO:    ‘Fences’ and ‘Day of Absence’ are being performed during the run of show for ‘Sweat.’

BROOKS:  That’s crazy!  You know that’s the first play that we read at Morehouse. I have to give Spellman College a shout out because you actually cross register at Spellman College because Morehouse didn’t have a drama department.  But Spellman does. It’s kind of hard to have a department without men as well. So, I actually was more a Spellman than Morehouse student.

MXO:    I bet you had a difficult time with that one. (laughter)

BROOKS:  Yeh it was rough. (laughter)

ROBERT: Yes my wife is also a Spellman woman. (laughter)

MXO:    (LAUGHING): Okay winding down I’d like to thank you Robert and Brooks for this interview. Brooks welcome to Cleveland and get ready for the craziest fan base in football. And the Browns fans are exceptionally hyped this year.

BROOKS:   I’m ready I already have my set up.

MXO:    Again, thanks so much and break a leg. I look forward to seeing this production.

ROBERT: Thank you so much Osupa!

Brooks:  Thank you so much!

MXO:    Chow.

*Robert Barry Fleming is the  Associate Artistic Director with Cleveland Play House.

I did have the opportunity to see ‘Sweat.’  It is a phenomenal presentation of economic plight and the human condition. ‘Sweat’ arouses happiness, anger and sorrow.  I literally cried during this production.

‘Sweat’ is now playing through November 4th in the Outcalt Theatre at Cleveland Play House.

More information is available here.

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