Vanderbilt Magazine

New Fisk–Vanderbilt arts partnership launches with the play ‘Sweat’ on both campuses

Lynn Nottage's "Sweat" - Fisk-Vanderbilt theatre production posterThe Pulitzer Prize–winning drama Sweat will be performed on both the Fisk and Vanderbilt campuses in April, thanks to a new arts partnership created by the universities’ theatre departments.

“This partnership represents one of the many ways our institutions work together,” said Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting, vice provost for arts and libraries. “As Vanderbilt’s arts strategy evolves, we hope to launch more.”

The inaugural Fisk–Vanderbilt theatrical co-production, featuring actors and crew members from both universities, will open at Little Theater on the Fisk campus the weekend of April 7–9, then move to Vanderbilt’s Neely Auditorium for the following weekend, April 13–15.

The performances at Fisk’s Little Theater on April 7–8 will be at 7 p.m., while the performance on April 9 will be at 2 p.m. All three performances at Neely Auditorium will be at 8 p.m. Fisk will be selling tickets only at the door on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets for the Vanderbilt performances are available for purchase online.

Sweat, by playwright Lynn Nottage, delves into the lives of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, who struggle to pay their bills during a time when many American jobs are being outsourced to other countries. This show is directed by Chuck Smith, resident director at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and former colleague of Leah Lowe, director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt.

Lowe, who is also associate professor of theatre and former department chair, reconnected with Smith when he came to Nashville to direct the first of two Nashville Shakespeare Festival/Kennie Playhouse Theatre productions. “The genesis of the Fisk–Vanderbilt co-production began with conversations between Leah and Chuck two years ago about the possibility of his directing a VU Theatre production,” said Phillip Franck, professor of theatre and department chair. “It was Chuck who proposed that we look into producing a play with Fisk.”

Franck reached out to Persephone Felder-Fentress, special assistant to the provost for cultural initiatives and associate professor of humanities at Fisk, who was excited about the idea of a co-production and partnership with Vanderbilt. They opted to have the show open at Fisk so it could be part of the university’s 94th annual Spring Arts Festival.

“This process has been a most rewarding one,” Felder-Fentress said. “Our students, both Fisk’s and Vanderbilt’s, are working in tandem for a common goal—the production of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play directed by a well-respected director. Yet, little did they know they would also be building solid, long-lasting relationships.

“As these students from different worlds converge, they get to walk in each other’s shoes, if only for a season, and find common ground,” she added. “They have learned that they are more alike than different. Resources or lack thereof do not define who they are. Their character does, and they have found a kindred spirit within each other.”

A committee of theatre faculty and students including Franck, Felder-Fentress, Lowe and Smith reviewed various plays and came to an agreement that Sweat would be an excellent choice for the first joint theatrical production. They also put a priority on auxiliary campus events and collaborations to bring greater awareness to this historic project. This included a panel discussion last fall with Jefferson Cowie, James G. Stahlman Professor and professor of history at Vanderbilt; Khalid Y. Long, playwright and assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies and the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Georgia; LaTanya Rogers, associate professor of literature and drama at Fisk University; and Smith. Lowe served as moderator.

Franck noted that many logistical details have been worked out during the past 20 months, from transporting students between universities to navigating the universities’ different cultures and administrative practices. “We have gleaned much from this experience and hope to apply the lessons learned to future projects,” he said.

The production was cast in early 2023 with rehearsals beginning in February.

“Observing a cast composed of Fisk and Vanderbilt students working cohesively toward a common goal, with direction from Chuck Smith and crew members from both universities, is magical,” Lowe said. “We look forward to sharing our production with audiences in April.”

Production team

Director: Chuck Smith (Fred Coe Artist-in-Residence)

Assistant directors: Rachel Ward (Fisk) and Audrey Molina (Vanderbilt)

Set and lighting designer: Phillip Franck (Vanderbilt)

Costume designer: Hannah Chalman (Vanderbilt)

Composer: Joseph Wooten (Coe Artist)

Fight choreographer: David Wilkerson (Coe Artist)

Technical director: Liz Haynes (Vanderbilt)

Lead dramaturg: Khalid Long (Coe Artist)

Dramaturgs: Olutobi Akisanya (Vanderbilt), Brianna Stewart (Vanderbilt) and the Theatre Appreciation Class (Fisk)

Stage managers: Asante Guzik (Fisk) and Esther Osunluna (Vanderbilt)


Brucie – Sean Webb (Fisk)

Chris – Jeffery Casey (Fisk)

Cynthia – Camryn Johnson (Fisk)

Evan – Carrie Ford (Fisk)

Jason – Will Henke (Vanderbilt)

Jessie – Paige Givens (Vanderbilt)

Oscar – Christian Rodriguez Rosale (Vanderbilt)

Stan – Alex LeRux (Vanderbilt)

Tracey – Lily Gussis (Vanderbilt)