Lynne Nottage Pits Rigged Justice vs. Self-Empowerment
by Patricia L. Morin
In Berkeley Rep’s “Clyde’s,” four ex-cons fresh out of prison and a boss straight out of Dante’s Inferno beckon us to chew on the power of imaginative sandwich making.
Cold-hearted, provocative Clyde (relentless April Wilson) degrades every new and inventive sandwich her subservient ex-criminals can create. Flamboyant Clyde, the owner, dresses in hot, extremely low-cut, colorful outfits and wigs. Costume designer Karen Perry and Hair/Wig Designer Megan Ellis team up for sparkling, award-winning outfits.
Designer Wilson Chin’s impressive early 60’s retro-kitchen includes a shiny stainless-steel fridge and sink, fancy old gas grill, and giant rolling worktables. Working on a on a huge, dynamic beige and red tile floor, four ex-convicts secretly compete for Best Sandwich, as they appeal to all our senses.
As Clyde, April Nixon’s trash talk, and rancorous verbal harassment of her workers tightens the tension. Clyde knows no boundaries: she grabs the new worker, hard-nosed Jason (tight-lipped Louis Reyes McWilliams) by the ass right away. When he complains, she retorts, “What are you going to do, call the police?”
Through Nottage’s sharp, realistic dialogue, we feel the hopelessness of these indentured servants struggling to keep their kitchen jobs. We also see the huge holes in the justice system that thwarts their opportunities. Director Taylor Reynolds’ keen eye for detail keeps the pace swift for all 95 minutes.
These topflight actors depict specific types: the harassed young mother, Letitia, who stole drugs for her ailing daughter; the Latin youth, Rafael, who robbed a bank with a BB gun to buy his girlfriend a dog. There’s ex-felon, Jason, with tattoos on his neck who hurt people in a family squabble, and the truly innocent old timer, Montrellous.
But the plot wanders and drifts sideways. Character arcs are slim. The connection between social justice and personal self-empowerment seems sketchy. Nottage pits the evil, domineering Clyde against the heavenly Montrellous—more a parable than a plot, really.
The insidious tension between Montrellous and Clyde centers the play. Montrellous, a calm, Buddha-like spokesman enlivens the spirits of the group. His weapon: Sandwiches.
The workers learn the power of invention. They dream, then build what they hope will be the “perfect” sandwich. They discover a way to fight the subjugation of their dreams by injustice and by Clyde, herself.
They shout out some mouth-watering recipes during the play, building sandwiches for Montrellous to taste and judge. He teaches: “Put your pain in the pan … bring the chaos from home into the kitchen.” Montrellous travels from martyr for his brother, to guru to therapist. Rafael says, “He makes believers out of the most jaded vegans.”
Surely, learning to build anything strengthens our belief in ourselves, especially when a mentor believes in our potential.
But a wave of conflict surges between Clyde and Montrellous over what goes into a sandwich. The conflict dies quickly, and the resolution of this fable left me scratching my head.
The metaphors are smart, the humor a silver lining. Watching the talented, high-energy workers dance, tease, create, and romance to a splendid variety of music is worth taking in this new, enjoyable show.
“Clyde’s” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Taylor Reynolds, sound design by Aubrey Dube, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, co-produced by Huntington Theatre. Info: BerkeleyRep.org – to February 26, 2023.
Cast: Wesley Guimarães, Cyndii Johnson, Louis Reyes McWilliams, April Nixon, and Harold Surratt.
Banner photo: Louis Reyes McWilliams, Harold Suratt, & April Nixon. Photos by Kevin Berne