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‘Clyde’s’: Imperfect people striving for a perfect sandwich

Review: In Portland Center Stage's heart-filled production of Lynn Nottage's truck-stop diner comedy/drama, ex-inmates in the kitchen aspire to a better meal and a better life.


Andrea Vernae (left) as diner boss Clyde, with Pascal Arquimedes and Lauren Steele as kitchen workers in the Syracuse Stage/Portland Center Stage production of "Clyde's." Photo: Michael Davis
Andrea Vernae (left) as diner boss Clyde, with Pascal Arquimedes and Lauren Steele as kitchen workers in the Syracuse Stage/Portland Center Stage production of “Clyde’s.” Photo: Michael Davis

Playwright Lynn Nottage understands the power of theater to create empathy—and in Clyde’s, playing at Portland Center Stage through June 30 in a co-production with Syracuse Stage, the focus of her empathy is the formerly incarcerated. In this comic drama, four souls grasping to recover some semblance of a life after time spent in custody assemble sandwiches, hope, and solidarity in the kitchen of a roadside truck-stop sandwich shop.

Their odds are made longer by their new conditions of confinement, maintained by their terrorizing, formerly incarcerated boss, for whom the play and the sandwich shop are named. Clyde has no truck with the dreams of her employees; she hires the formerly incarcerated for the ease of exploiting them, not out of kindness. But if Nottage has her way, you’ll leave with a more sophisticated palate than you came with, nudged past your own failures of imagination.

At first blush, the premise here is slighter than in Sweat, the second of Nottage’s plays to win a Pulitzer Prize.  (She also won for Ruined.)  Like Sweat, Clyde’s is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, among the dispossessed, and is inspired by Nottage’s many months spent in conversation with people impacted by the decline of heavy industry in the Rust Belt.  Where Sweat brought attention to racial tensions and the impacts of job losses and economic struggle on communities once sustained by good union jobs, the focus of Clyde’s is on challenges faced by many of the folks Nottage encountered in the time she spent in those communities:  the experience of incarceration and its aftermath.

Letitia, Rafael, and Montrellous already have a rhythm going at the play’s opening. They have a sense of each other’s wounds, and appreciate the limits of their options. They also reach for consolation. Letitia and Rafael are united in their respect for Montrellous, whom they see as a sort of spiritual leader.  Montrellous has a creative imagination, a sense for how to combine unexpected ingredients into an inspiring sandwich. 

Pascal Arquimedes (left) is a truck-stop cook and Setareki Wainiqolo is the cook who aims to make the best sandwich possible in "Clyde's." Photo: Michael Davis
Pascal Arquimedes (left) is a truck-stop cook and Setareki Wainiqolo is the cook who aims to make the best sandwich possible in “Clyde’s.” Photo: Michael Davis

In a place that serves truckers and where Clyde means for them to keep their aim low and simple—turkey on Wonder Bread — Montrellous dares to imagine and dream, and sparks that impulse in his admiring co-workers. He brings in herbs from his own garden and devises little innovations for their recipes.  Declaring that the sandwich is “the most democratic of all foods,” inviting “invention and collaboration,” he makes sandwiches a focus of aspiration and mouthwatering revelation. As Rafael exclaims with admiration, “Somehow your shit always tastes like the truth.”

A fourth cook joins the kitchen early in the play — Jason, the only carryover from Sweat (a connection not necessary to understand his character here), depicted after serving a sentence for aggravated assault. Jason has recently been released from his prison term and is the only white staff member, covered in white supremacist tattoos acquired during his prison stint. 

Clyde does nothing to ease Jason’s entry into the kitchen; she doesn’t care about such things.  But the play doesn’t make the predictable conflicts sparked by Jason’s entrance its main focus. It’s more about how each of the five characters struggles for their humanity — or, in Clyde’s case, opts instead to take control of the lie that drives the carceral system. As director Chip Miller explains, Clyde “has internalized the lie that she is broken forever and [has] decided to live in it.” Indeed, she protects the lie and concentrates on using it to her own advantage, wielding it to dehumanize the kitchen staff and to snub out any sparks of hope.


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The play is driven more by conversation than plot, something for which it has taken some criticism. But many of those who have written about the play have missed its subtlety, as though they are reaching for the pickled relish that will ruin its flavor. Nottage seeks to awaken our taste buds, to help us imagine beyond our turkey-and-white-bread conception of the formerly incarcerated by walking a few moments in their shoes. She wants us to recognize them as more interesting and worthy than the worst things they have done. 

Orion Bradshaw as the new guy in the kitchen, under the daunting glare of Andrea Vernae as Clyde. Photo: Michael Davis
Orion Bradshaw as the new guy in the kitchen, under the daunting glare of Andrea Vernae as Clyde. Photo: Michael Davis

Under Miller’s compassionate direction and the work of this fine cast, the play mostly succeeds in that aim. Lauren Steele infuses Letitia with flair and desire skewed by low expectations for herself. Pascal Arquimedes makes you flinch with the pain of Rafael’s wounds and wince at his open-heartedness, and Orion Bradshaw convinces you that Jason’s goodness can win out over the many choices he regrets making. As Montrellous, Setareki Wainiqolo inspires you to hope with him, living into the respect accorded him by those who accept him as their elder. 

In some ways, I wish Nottage had found a way to resist the impulse to tell us what the characters did to land inside the carceral system. Predictably, some have criticized the back stories here as too sympathetic, emblematic of how practiced we are at reaching for ways to justify and make sense of the carceral system. I appreciate that audiences would expect to hear back stories like those offered here, and perhaps the characters would, too — but I don’t trust that we collectively know how to hold such information. We treat it as explaining more than it does, and feel ourselves more qualified than we are to judge it and put it into perspective.

But the characters here still manage to help us see their humanity, and offer us glimpses of the dehumanization of the carceral system, which relentlessly assigns its subjects responsibility for their own loss of hope. As I often see in my own work as a judge, we are prone to seeing the incarcerated as merely suffering the consequences of their own bad choices, when really we have arranged things to deprive them of choice about so many things that we control. Like Clyde, we insist that they stick to options stripped of flavor, nutrition, aspiration, and imagination.

In this play, food is a representation of hope. Clyde, as embodied by a fierce Andrea Vernae, makes it clear she won’t eat what her employees are serving; she doesn’t truck in hope. Her way of taking power is to wrest the control that she can over the options afforded to her, spewing anger and abuse and confining her expression to noise and bling meant to convey her primacy, including sexual primacy. She is the logical extension of the assumptions that drive the carceral system, where expressions of desire for respect merit nothing but spit and disdain. 

In this play, the tools of expression are less about plot and more about energy. And in this heart-filled, embodied production, a talented group of artists have channeled their energy toward understanding and aspiration. Come ready for a taste.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.


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