Eight times a week, Carlo Albán gets beaten senseless with a baseball bat. It’s been going on for two years, and even though it’s a stage fight, he has the bruises to prove just how real it plays. Brutal and violent, it’s a difficult scene to watch: There’s an air of inevitability to it, as there is to the entirety of Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s scorching drama about the deep wells of anger and hopelessness roiling beneath the surface of America’s blue-collar working class.
Set mostly in the bar of a dying Pennsylvania factory town, Sweat – which earned Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is a contender for the Tony best play award – takes a jarring turn when Albán’s character, Oscar, becomes the object of that rage. It’s all the more shocking because until then, Oscar, a Colombian-American born in the town, has been a peripheral figure, sweeping up, clearing tables, cleaning the bar. The photograph accompanying this story epitomizes the Oscars of the world: There he is, in the upper left-hand corner, all but invisible – as he is in nearly all the production shots for the show.
Albán is not invisible, though he might have been. His Ecuadorian family moved to the U.S. when he was seven, first to California before settling in New Jersey. He began acting as a child, which was a mixed blessing for his parents, who were undocumented throughout the 12 years it took for them to get their green cards and thus risked exposure. Albán continued performing and eventually became a mainstay of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz’s extraordinarily productive LAByrinth theater company. His work there eventually led to his being cast as Oscar in the original production of Sweat at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which commissioned the play. It later moved to New York’s Public Theater before opening at Studio 54 in March. We met and spoke recently in New York.
Deadline: You’ve been with Sweat since the first workshop, in January 2015. What was the challenge of playing Oscar?
Carlo Albán: Oscar on the page is a constant presence, but his story line through the play, his journey is not written. Kate [Whoriskey, the director] would say, “Can you do something in this moment to draw my eye? I want the audience to realize that you’re in this room.” But she also just let me figure it out. Like, Where does Oscar live? There’s a corner behind the bar and a corner in the bar, but if he steps out of them into where the other characters live, he has to stay out of their way while trying to do the work.
‘I saw my parents, as immigrants, try and try and try to take root and get ahead and so yes, Sweat resonates with me incredibly. Oscar is not an immigrant, he was born in this country, yet he’s seen as an outsider. And I was an outsider. So I know very much about that.’
Deadline: Did this have personal resonance for you?
Albán: Absolutely. I think it has personal resonance for everyone in the cast, because we’re actors, we’re working-class people, we live paycheck to paycheck most of the time. All of the time. But also, he’s Latino, I’m Latino. I’m Ecuadorian. There’s a lot of talk about fathers in the play and their struggles, and I just can’t help but equate that with my family. I saw my parents, as immigrants, try and try and try to take root and get ahead and so yes, that resonates with me incredibly. Oscar is not an immigrant, he was born in this country, yet he’s seen as an outsider. And I was an outsider. So I know very much about that.
Deadline: One of the truths we get from the play is that we don’t get to define ourselves. They will do it for us. There’s always a different they, but there’s always a they.
Albán: Yeah, you’re always defined in relation to the environment that you’re in and to the people that you’re around. Oscar doesn’t have a voice. Because of the way he looks, because of his ethnicity, he’s seen in a particular way within this environment. No matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, he can’t break out of that bubble. Yes, I find myself feeling like Oscar just by virtue of cleaning the tables, wiping the bar down and picking up everybody’s glasses – and not making eye contact, because that’s the character. These are working-class, blue-collar people. These are the people I grew up with. It gets under your skin.
Deadline: How did you come to a life in the theater?
Albán: I fell into it. I auditioned for a community theater-slash-professional production of Oliver Twist in Union City when I was 11 because my cousin wanted to be an actor and I was visiting her and it seemed like fun. I was Oliver. I hadn’t had any training, I was just a cute kid. There was an agent in the audience.
Deadline: What did your parents think?
Albán, after a pause: My parents were supportive. But they were scared. We were undocumented. We came to the U.S. on a tourist visa and overstayed. They applied for a green card right away but it took us 12 years to get it, so for me, from the ages of 7 to 19.
Deadline: During that time, you had a detour through Sesame Street.
Albán: When I was 14, I was on Sesame Street and stayed for 5 years, my first paying job. Then, in my early 20’s I did a play at the Public called References To Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot. John Ortiz was in it. He was one of the founders of LAByrinth. He said, “You’ve gotta come,” and so I walked into this little theater on 21st Street and it was slam poets and musicians and monologists, the art scene in New York in this tiny little theater.
Deadline: And you met Phil Hoffman there, as well.
Albán: The first time I saw Phil was at the summer retreat, He was very down to earth and grounded, kind and generous. It was like graduate school for me. Just being in the room with those artists at that time – I feel like they raised me and taught me how to be an artist. It was a safe space. That’s also where I met Kate, who was directing a play at the summer intensive. And later I also met Lynn through Lab.
Deadline: How have the audiences differed in the three very different venues where Sweat has been performed?
Albán: The Oregon audience was very keyed into racial dynamics, they had a level of, I hate to use the word, but of wokeness. At the Public, the audience is mostly white, and subscription, and more intellectual. They were quieter. You know, the play is also very, very funny, and there were a lot of jokes that, at the Public, we said “Why aren’t they laughing?” And now, here on Broadway, a lot of those laughs are coming back. We have a lot of out-of-towners.
Deadline: Do you have a fear of being locked into Latino roles?
Albán: No! As long as they’re good. I mean, I am Latino. I’m proud of being Latino. That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to see more diversity in casting. It’s starting to get better but we are nowhere near where we need to be. But I’m not scared of playing Latinos, as long as they’re well-drawn.
Deadline: What was it like, going from pre-election to post-election with Sweat?
Albán: We had a show on Monday, November 7, then the election happened, and on Wednesday morning Kate called each of us individually and said, “We cannot do the same show. This is a different play.” They made just one minor change, but things just resonated differently. If you really listen, you can side with any one of the characters. Lynn saw that coming. She gave these people a voice. It felt like an important play before, but now it just feels more so. It’s a big responsibility.
The Tony Awards will be telecast live by CBS June 11, beginning at 8 PM New York time.