.Oh Sandwich, My Sandwich

‘Clyde’s’ is about hope—topped with aioli

In Clyde’s, which previewed at Berkeley Rep Jan. 20, and opens Jan. 25,  a hero can be a sandwich—but it can also be someone trying to rebuild their life.

The 2022 Tony-nominated play by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage is a comic drama, but it also addresses the very real issues formerly incarcerated people face, including finding jobs that have any meaning, along with an actual road out of their previous lives. 

Set in Reading, PA, Clyde’s intersects the stories of Leticia (Tish), busted for stealing drugs; Rafael, who held up a bank with a BB gun; and Montrellous, whose crime remains somewhat elusive, with that of female shop owner Clyde, who was also once in prison, possibly for killing her then-boyfriend. Clyde is no bleeding heart, however. She hires ex-cons because they’ll work for low wages, and isn’t shy about reminding them of their few other options.

But through the aid of the diner’s “mysterious chef,” each worker is encouraged to dream up and then create “the perfect sandwich.” Ideas—and food—begin to fly.

Since its premiere, Clyde’s has been embraced by audiences across the U.S., becoming the most-produced play in the country in 2022. Reached by email, Nottage commented on this: “Part of the reason I think it resonates the way it does is due to the comedic nature of the play. Clyde’s is to me a beautiful metaphor for creativity, reinvention and the ways in which we creatively sustain ourselves. It’s also about moving through a difficult moment, which we’ve been doing culturally and globally, for what feels like an eternity, and finding ways to move forward towards happiness.”

She noted that she did not base the play on a real diner. There’s a fantastical, almost magical tinge to the story behind the depiction of work that might feed Clyde’s customers, but also, somehow, begins to feed its characters’ souls.

Clyde’s opened in November 2012 at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theatre. It won the Outer Critics Circle Award for “Outstanding New Broadway Play,” and was nominated for a Tony Award as “Best Play.”

Among other companies staging the play are the Arden Theater Company in Philadelphia, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Arkansas Repertory Theater, Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, TheaterWorks Hartford and now, Berkeley Rep.

The Washington Post wrote,What melts away as you get to know the characters are the monumental stigmas attached to jail time…Jason is inked to the max with prison tats, some of them racist symbols, but the story behind them reveals something unexpected. Letitia (Tish,)…is all adolescent energy and adult anxiety, the latter brought on as a single mother caring for a sick child…Rafael needs an emotional home for his nurturing instincts, as an alternative to his weakness for drugs.”

The Chicago Tribune had a very specific take on the play: “By setting up a conflict between a tyrannical, mercenary, abusive boss and a group of struggling kitchen workers—in this case, former felons—who are constantly stymied in their attempts to do their best and most original creative work, Nottage really is going after the forces that control Broadway and the upper echelons of the other branches of showbiz.”

Bon Appetit, not a usual source of theater commentary, was moved to chime in about the sandwich ideas dreamed up by Clyde’s workers: “‘Baby eggplant parmigiana with puttanesca on an olive and rosemary ciabatta,’ Rafael pitches to the group in one scene. ‘Bacon, lettuce and grilled squash on cornbread with molasses butter,’ Letitia responds. ‘Curried quail egg salad with mint on oven-fresh cranberry pecan multigrain bread,’ Montrellous declares, getting the final word in before Clyde yells for American cheese on white, snapping everyone back to work.”

Taylor Reynolds, director of the Berkeley Rep production, which is co-produced by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, added, “A lot of the credit [for the play’s popularity] is due to the virtuosity of the writing. There is such humanity in the play…it’s a comedy showing lightness and joy in a purgatory space.”

Reynolds is directing her first production at the Rep. She has a connection to the company through its associate artistic director, David Mendizábal, as they are both producing artistic leaders of New York’s Obie Award-winning The Movement Theatre Company. After developing initial relationships with people at the Rep on Zoom, she felt at home with the company’s community-based approach, “and it’s wonderful to actually be here,” she said.

First introduced to Nottage’s work through the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Intimate Apparel, Reynolds said she admires the playwright’s ability to “cross space and time.” She saw Sweat on Broadway and is a fan of Crumbs from the Table of Joy. “You understand [in Nottage’s work] why the characters are in the situations they are in,” she explained.

Rehearsals began with four days of “table reads,” in which actors sit around a table and informally read through the play, exploring the themes and characters. In this case, they talked about “what is denied to people who are trying to rebuild their lives,” said Reynolds. They talked about the meaning of “sandwiches,” and how a kitchen operates. There’s also the idea of workplace friendships. “You think you know someone. But the majority of their life you don’t know about,” she said.

She described Clyde’s as “rhythmic and technical,” referring to the comic timing, as well as the script being full of physical movement. Each rehearsal adds in more of the physical life of the play. A Rep staff member worked in a similar kitchen setting at one time, and “came in to help us work out how a kitchen like this operates,” she said. 

Cast members, including Wesley Guimarães (Rafael), Cyndii Johnson (Leticia), Louis Reyes McWilliams (Jason), April Nixon (Clyde) and Harold Surratt (Montrellous), were asked to describe their own perfect sandwich. “I think the word ‘aioli’ was used about 20 times,” Reynolds said. “And I think we have definitely upped Berkeley’s sandwich sales.” 

People have a very complex relationship with food, she explained, and in the process of working on Clyde’s, Reynolds has thought a lot about people who don’t have access to enough food, or fresh food. “It’s wrapped up in love and comfort. I feel passionately about where food is coming from…who grew it, who harvested it, how it comes to us,” she noted.

In dreaming about making the perfect sandwich, “you can dream about a different life for yourself,” said Reynolds. “But,” she added, “hope is a dangerous thing.”

Nottage and Reynolds agreed that audiences from the East Bay, one of the priciest and foodie-est areas of the country, will have their own take on the struggles and ambitions of the play’s characters.

“I do feel that the Berkeley performance could have a special resonance,” Nottage wrote. “In Clyde’s, the idea of being a foodie becomes a means of survival, with the art of making sandwiches and giving people the food they love transforming into a weapon of resistance.” 

Said Reynolds, “[Here in Berkeley], there is such a variety of types of food, so many culture-specific foods, with a complexity of flavors. But Clyde’s is a truck stop, with people passing through.” Yet the story, she believes, will reach whatever audience comes to see the play.

A previous directing outing for Reynolds was Rhonda Marie Khan’s FOOD. Asked if plays involving food were becoming a speciality of hers, she laughed, but admitted she enjoys working with making food on stage. It can be chaotic and unpredictable, but also absolutely keeps actors and audience in the moment.

Her cast is totally on board with this. “They are so exciting,” she said. “Seasoned vets working with people newly out of grad school…they all came together in such a communal way.” The Berkeley Rep production will be their own version of Clyde’s, “diving in headfirst with our own interpretation.” And, of course—their own sandwiches.

‘Clyde’s,’ through Feb. 26, Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Peet’s Theatre), 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. 510-647-2949, berkeleyrep.org. Running time: 90 min, no intermission.

Post-show discussions Feb. 3, 9 and 14.

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