A young man I know was convicted of shoplifting when he was eighteen when he stole a stuffie so he could give his little sister a birthday present. What followed was a horrendous purgatory of years of joblessness as prospective employers refused to hire him…and all of the other difficulties that come from having no income.
I thought of him while considering the new Goodman Theatre production of Clyde’s, Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s inventive, surrealistic comedy about a group of paroled prisoners who find themselves stuck working at a dead-end truck stop restaurant (the “Clyde’s” of the title) under the volatile and demeaning thumb of its capricious and unscrupulous proprietor, who demonstrates her willingness to have them thrown back in prison even if she has to lie to do it.
Director Kate Whoriskey, who directed the 2019 Broadway production of Clyde’s, is at the helm here as well. Her deft comic touch helps create a comfortable and warm environment despite her main character’s explosive temper and amplifies the humor of Nottage’s script. (For a playwright not known for humor, Nottage here is incandescent.) Whoriskey and her production team also do a wonderful job of playing—and not overplaying—the surrealist conceit here that this greasy spoon is a kind of metaphorical purgatory for all of its denizens. Nottage’s script includes frequent references to Clyde as a “demon” or a “devil,” as well as two moments when she literally conjures fires in the kitchen; the intent couldn’t be more clear. (Costume designer Jennifer Moeller gets in on the fun as well, dressing Clyde in what seems to be an endless series of skin-tight, flamboyant outfits that culminate with a red one. All she is missing are horns and a tail.)
The set here (by Takesha Kata) is an odd combination of realistic and fantastical. The action takes place in a grimy, crowded kitchen and mostly feels real…but that set is encased in a bright, polygonal frame that changes color throughout the play, a reminder (if we need it) that there is heavy metaphor at work here. In addition,
the devil Clyde has a habit of popping up suddenly, even entering through the walk-in refrigerator, looming and making everyone very uncomfortable.
Her four ex-con employees do their best to deal with her whims, her insults, and her threats. One of Nottage’s great strengths—character development—serves her well here. We meet Montrellous (Kevin Kenerly), the resident guru/philosopher—one of his co-workers describes him as “like the Buddha if he’d grown up in the hood”—who strives to imbue his co-workers with his passion to find the perfect sandwich:
“You know why I love the sandwich, ‘cuz it’s a complete meal that you can hold between your fingers. It’s the most democratic of all foods. Two pieces of bread, and between, you can put anything you want. It invites invention and collaboration.”
Unfortunately for him, Clyde has no interest at all in “invention and collaboration.” She is content that her staff “melt a piece of cheese between two slices of wonder bread.” And she is perfectly happy to force them to contaminate and ruin even the one interesting and well-constructed sandwich on the menu with things like ketchup or pickle relish. For a true believer like Montrellous, who has visions of making this place something special, she could not be a worse employer. Kenerly’s performance grounds the play. The other cooks look up to him as a leader and advisor as well as a barometer of just how much they can and should put up with.
With Montrellous in the kitchen are Rafael (Reza Salazar), Letitia (Nedra Snipes), and newcomer Jason (Garrett Young). Each has a criminal background, of course, but we learn that there were mitigating circumstances for three of them…not altogether different from needing money to buy a birthday present for a loved one. Only Jason, who shows up covered with intimidating white supremacist prison tattoos, truly deserved his punishment. (Not a spoiler, as Jason is a character in Nottage’s Sweat, and his crime happens onstage in that earlier play.) Still, as awful as his actions were, Sweat (and, for that matter, Clyde’s) makes it clear that he was not that kind of person until he lost his job and grew desperate (and drunk) enough to do something stupid and illegal. Snipes, Salazar, and Young each give their characters good souls (Jason, at first, doesn’t even want any kind of mitigation of his conduct) and Nottage is smart enough to provide them with other conflicts, motivations, and emotions, giving them life beyond this diner.
Clyde, weird, wicked, and almost omnipresent as she tries to control her staff and keep the “demons” she owes money to at bay, is of course the center of darkness here. I saw understudy Danielle Davis play the role, which is usually played by De’Adre Aziza, and she was outstanding. By design, the character chews up the scenery, and Davis can chew with the best of them. Whether feigning flirtation with one of the men, threatening them, or instructing them to use tainted sea bass she has bought—if someone complains, she says, she can fix it with a free beer—Clyde is domineering and dangerous. (This place is one huge contradiction: why does it have that one fancy sandwich? Why does it even need sea bass?) The cooks never quite know what their employer will do next, so they fear her. For her part, she enjoys the game: she toys with them, teases them, degrades them, or humiliates them as her mood strikes because she knows she is the only one who will hire all of these societal rejects: “Y’all know what you’ve done, and you don’t deserve (any joy in life), and a little salt and pepper ain’t gonna make the truth taste better.” That she too is an ex-felon is totally beside the point.
Lighting (by Christopher Akerlind) and sound (by Justin Ellington, making use of Justin Hicks’ original compositions) are very important to this show’s more surrealist aspects. Between the scenes, at the end, and in moments when Nottage wants us to focus on the zen of it all, especially when Montrellous is describing his latest creation, Whoriskey uses everything at her disposal to deliver us where the playwright wants us. She doesn’t provide absolute answers, of course, leaving us and the characters in the spaces in between light and darkness, life and death, hope and despair…where Clyde (who Jason says “might actually be the devil”) to await her next batch of broken souls.
Tickets are available from The Goodman Theatre or performances now through Oct. 9. For other reviews, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.