Lynn Nottage’s drama Sweat, now playing on Broadway at Studio 54, is a play that unfolds delicately before reaching a confronting, aggressive conclusion in the second act. When rumors of layoffs fly at a factory in Reading, PA, rifts form among a group of life-long friends—causing tension, betrayals, and eventually, a violent brawl. Fight director U. Jonathan Toppo has been directing Sweat’s epic fight scene since the show’s world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, later, at the Public Theater staging Off-Broadway this past fall.
We joined Toppo and the Broadway cast for the Sweat fight call, where the cast rehearses the explosive fight onstage. Using Toppo’s pro tips in the video above and the tutorial below, learn how to execute five of the choreographed maneuvers used onstage—and keep your eyes peeled as the actors perform them with precision.
Contact Stomach Punch
The technique for the stomach punch is to make a fist that isn’t completely clenched tight—light should be able to pass through it, therefor minimizing its impact upon contact. Any move that is labeled “contact” indicates actual physical contact between both fighters. The trick with any contact move, explains Toppo, is “going to it not through it,” to ensure that the actor who is punching isn’t “driving through” with force. To accentuate the contact stomach punch, the actor being punched will crunch their abdominal away from the swinging fist, imitating the force of the punch, and will make a gut-punch sound effect. Toppo explains that contact hits are only permitted in the big muscle group areas of the body: the stomach, the back, the butt, the thigh, and on men, the pectorals.
“The John Wayne”
Though it looks terrifying, this is a non-contact punch and the equivalent of a magic trick. The actor throwing the punch narrowly misses their victim’s cheek and instead slaps their other hand out of view of the audience—a move called a “slip hand knap.” The success of the John Wayne lies in creating the illusion of contact without the audience being aware of the trick, which necessitates careful blocking from the fight director.
“First of all, Carlo [Albán] and Khris [Davis] are fantastic at this move!” says Toppo. Initially, Toppo was concerned that Davis’ height—the actor is over six-feet tall—would make a head butt with Albán near-impossible. But the fight director relishes such challenges. “I like to look at them as opportunities,” says Toppo, who used Davis’ size to help with the illusion of the head butt—which like the John Wayne, is non-contact. The move is staged with Albán positioned upstage of Davis, so while the audience witnesses Albán rearing his head back and jumping up, the would-be point of contact of the head butt is concealed from view. Albán cups his hand—a technique called “the knap”—and hits his chest to create a cracking sound.
Contact Back Smash
Toppo says that the back smash is just as much about “storytelling,” as it is about technique. He encourages the actor doing the smash to hold their fist up high for a moment—slightly delaying the moment of action—which keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. “My main job is storytelling,” says the fight director, “along with setting the actors up for success, safely.” The back smash also requires a last-minute change in hand movements. Just before the actor’s hand is set to make contact with the other actor’s back, the “smasher” will switch from a fist to a knap—cupped hand—minimizing the impact of the smash and creating a louder, harsher sound. The “smasher” will immediately switch back to a fist after making contact.
Contact Stomach Kick
Another move that necessitates physical contact between two actors. While the actor who is kicking begins the kick by pointing his foot in the direction of his or her victim, the actual contact is made with the flat, upper part of the foot—which, like knapping, minimizes any damage to the stomach.
See what leads up to this climax in Sweat, now in previews at Studio 54 and officially opens March 26. For tickets and information visit SweatBroadway.com.