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.
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?