The employees of Clyde’s – a casual coffee shop down a long Pennsylvania street and the name of a new play by Lynn Nottage – are frequently engrossed in quirky activities. When they fixed plates for hungry, on-the-go truckers, the enterprising chefs enthusiastically traded their vision of the perfect sandwich. They suggest spicy combinations for classics (peanut butter and grape jelly with cinnamon and nutmeg), flavor mixes (Cubano sandwich with pickles, jalapeño aioli and sweet onions) and side dishes. sumptuous combinations (Maine lobster rolls with baked potatoes, roasted garlic butter, paprika and cracked pepper with truffles mayo, caramelized dill and sprinkles of cumin). At Clyde’s, sandwiches are more than just a convenient meal served at lunch and dinner; they tell stories, hold the truth and nurture dreams.
Like most of Nottage’s work, By Clyde, which is currently showing on Broadway at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theatre, focuses on the stories of the forgotten. The skillful playwright’s dramas have a knack for getting to the heart of conventional stories, accurately framing them, and re-enacting them in compelling ways. In Intimate attire (2004), Nottage delves into the life of a talented black seamstress, inspired by the author’s great-grandmother, who falls in love with a cheating man; devastation Devastated (2009) documents the experiences of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and in Sweat (2015), she weaves a powerful story of economic anger and frustration set in a local bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, a factory town deeply affected by the recession in 2008.
In By ClydeNottage returned to Berks County, where Reading is located, to tell a different story. The 95-minute play is clearly not a sequel to Sweat, but it does include one of the characters of that work, which suggests some continuity – if only minor. Jason (now played by Edmund Donavan) just got a job at Clyde’s, the only place willing to hire former detainees. He joins an intimate and diverse team: fiery Letitia (the brilliant Kara Young), Black; lover Rafael (Reza Salazar), Latino; and Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), also Black. They’ve all run out of time, and this play takes a sober, if sometimes dissenting, look at their lives behind the scenes.
Most of the crew members, especially Tish, scoffed at their newest co-worker, who was covered in white ultimate tattoos. But they reluctantly gave him a tour of the small kitchen, a fittingly modest space beautifully designed by Takeshi Kata, and reviewed the rules: Here are the workstations, two filled metal tables. basic supplies; over there, on the right, is the oven. Orders are taken here, they say, pointing to the window looking into the cafe. And oh, whatever you do, don’t piss off the owner, Clyde (Uzo Aduba). Jason, of course, is white, struggles to adjust, and the frustration and sometimes enjoyment only alienates him from others.
Hovering in the background of the film about employee looms menacing Clyde, a chilling figure whose cameo in the kitchen causes terror in people’s hearts. The play opens with Montrellous unfazedly telling her – an unsympathetic listener if ever – a story of his life. At the end of her story, Clyde asked, “Is there anything else you want to say or can I move on with my life?” The short-tempered man, dressed in a casual dashiki and kufi, stared in surprise before begging his boss to try the grilled cheese sandwich. She declines (“You know, I don’t eat that crap”) before discarding the lit cigarette over a blazing fire.
Initial, By Clyde Looks like it could revolve around Jason entering the kitchen, with Clyde going in and out. That scene with Montrellous and his gritty owner is followed by lively conversation between Jason and the others, which could become repetitive and lackluster if it lasted more than 90 minutes. Thankfully, Nottage goes in a different direction, and the film weaves in a poignant tale of worker solidarity and what it means to have a second chance, filled with hilarious jokes. Under the assured and inspiring direction of Nottage’s veteran collaborator, Kate Whoriskey, the play is an utterly thrilling experience.
The store’s employees openly carried regret and anxiety – you could see it in their faces and manners. Young in particular delivers a powerful performance as Tish: Can’t take her eyes off her as she confronts Jason about his tattoos, worries about her daughter or picturing him. Her perfect bread.
In the safety of this kitchen, an environment nurtured by Montrellous, Tish and her colleagues can slowly vent their shame, cry, laugh, and comfort. The truth is revealed as the characters prepare orders and volley recipe ideas around. Between talks about adding decorations and deciphering Clyde’s scratch, they candidly talk about what landed them in prison. Tish breaks into a pharmacy to steal epilepsy medication for her daughter; Rafael got on high and tried to rob a “movie-like” bank; Jason was locked up for aggravated assault. Why Montrellous served time was a mystery until the very end.
Clyde regularly checks this support system. Aduba’s amazing transformation as the seemingly heartless cafe owner is being seduced. With a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, she turned her eyes to her employee from the ordering window, raising her eyebrows at so little noise and so much laughter. She walked the stage in a series of flashy outfits (the costume designs were by Jennifer Moeller), her wealth marking the difference between her and the low-paid workers. Her harassment brought them down. They lived in fear of her temper. Get past her and she’ll probably make good on her threat to call the police.
Beneath the callus, however, are softer layers, expertly teased by Aduba’s deft altercation in the emotional notebook that is, in turn, often quickly extinguished. Jones’ Montrellous proves to be a near-perfect coordination partner, his unrelenting sweetness and zest at odds with Clyde’s nagging pessimism.
Despite being incarcerated as well, Clyde has little affection for his staff. And, of course, she doesn’t share their homage to creating the perfect sandwich. When the store received a glowing review in a local newspaper, Montrellous and the crew took the celebratory moment as a sign of the restaurant’s potential. But before they can fully fantasize about menu changes and the like, Clyde ruthlessly reminds them of their place in the world (criminal), to whom they respond (investor). thoughts) and the futility of dreams.
The painful moment that hurt Tish, Rafael, Jason, and even Montrellous is often unappealing, but it also inspires collective courage. If Sweat list the pain of betrayal, then By Clyde explore not only good and evil, but also the power of solidarity. The economic conditions caused by the pandemic and decades of policies that have harmed America’s poorest have made working-class cooperation essential to survival. Similarly, the final moments of the play show Clyde confronting bitterness with her weary and disgruntled employees. Fearless, they, in a radical and rather beautiful moment, decided enough was enough.
Venue: Helen Hayes Theater, New York
Actors: Uzo Aduba, Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donavan, Reza Salazar, Kara Young
Directed by: Kate Whoriskey
Music, lyrics and books: Lynn Nottage
Set Design: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerland
Sound Designer: Justin Ellington
Presented by Carole Rothman, Khady Kamara