This is going to be an abbreviated review because our household is sick (cold, not COVID-19) and have been out of commission all week. And as I often remind you, we are not trained reviewers.
Clyde’s is running now through Sun., Oct. 16 at City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side. This play is, as the kids say, lit. It comes from Lynn Nottage the first woman in history to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. This production is also one of the most popular of the season, with over 11 productions scheduled.
This is a play that explores the rich and nuanced lives of people we often overlook, the formerly incarcerated, preferring instead to put ‘them’ all into one clump of people. Clyde’s dices the institutions that are supposed to reform and allow people to pay their ‘debt to society’ by doing their time and then returning to resume a typical life. And we learn through the narratives of the four employees of Clydes just how daunting that return is even for those who have supports.
Clyde’s is a roadside truckstop set in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Clyde (Latonia Phipps) herself was incarcerated and intentionally hires others with the same history, but not out of solidarity – merely to create a workforce that is almost unilaterally at her mercy. She has power over them and can literally send them back to prison. That’s a heady power especially in the wrong hands. And Clyde’s hands are all sorts of wrong – she is a volatile, abusive, jaded woman who has “investors” that exert influence over her business decisions. Clyde shows no real interest in food except as a source of income.
The other four characters are more sympathetic as they struggle to juggle their lived realities with Clyde’s harassment. Rafael (Jerreme Rodriguez) is passionate and compassionate, especially with his coworker single mother Letitia (Saige Smith.) They are joined by a new hire, Jason (Patrick Cannon), the only white character whose White Supremacy facial tattoos bely his somewhat cowed and meek manner, a man who like the others has been ground down and discarded. And then there’s Montellous (Khalil Kain) the senior cook who finds joy and inspiration in the food and uses encouragement to urge his colleagues to embrace hope.
These folks make sandwiches for truck drivers with sandwiches as a mechanism to remember the good things in life, to tap into creativity we didn’t know about, to find hope that Montellous holds so dear. He challenges his colleagues to create new sandwiches with the power of their imagination and words. Their dream extends beyond food as necessary for survival and elevates even the most humble short order cook to a potential culinary genius. If they can put the right ingredients together, they elevate the discourse and their own possibilities. The attempt to tap into their own creative spark is what propels them forward.
Everyone can elevate their aspirations beyond survival. It’s something that the prison industrial complex ignores or actively grinds out of people. And perhaps only by forging connections with others in similar circumstances, even when that seems improbable as with Jason. As Montellous inspires them to defy expectations, their relationships with each other create the possibility of building their own support networks to address their real challenges – childcare, housing, and connection with other human beings, even love.
It was important to inform the audience of how they ended up in this kitchen, but the recounting of their crimes felt almost penitential – to prove to the audience that they were not bad people, just caught in bad situations. They all express regret for their choices, while clearly laying out the systemic dynamics. We never learn why Clyde was incarcerated. Montellous has a story that I saw coming from the beginning, one that props up his elevated status in the kitchen. He’s not like them because their lifealtering decisions were devastating while his was … not. But this felt like a copout by critiquing the systems that failed them without a genuine critique of the prison industrial complex itself. What about the people who aren’t ‘good people’ or aren’t remorseful or aren’t prepared to process their trauma? Like Clyde? Don’t they still deserve dignity because they are human beings?
The set was a plain kitchen with prep tables, a stove, and lots of food strewn about the space. The playwright infused a supernatural element that felt odd and confusing. The ending of the play was confusing and awkward albeit laced with some touching moments.
The performances were terrific, especially Phipps’ Clyde and Cannon’s Jason. It is uncomfortable to realize how deeply I was moved by the white man covered in racist tattoos, a feat I attribute to Cannon’s performance. Phipp’s had the task of being a terrible human being in a physically demanding role that had her sexually violating her staff, lashing them with ongoing verbal abuse, and dangling her power over them as if that power poured through her entire body’s perpetual movement.
My takeaway is the responsibility we all share to dismantle oppressive systems, including those in our own hearts and minds, as well as the ties that bind – how many of us struggle with childcare, with addiction, with housing stability, with the ghosts of our past, struggle to maintain hope? And how many of us struggle to change these systems so neighbors who have fulfilled their debt to society actually have a chance to reenter it with dignity, fairness, and opportunities afforded to all of us? Here in Allegheny County we have opportunities to do this right now.
Clyde’s run is through Sunday, October 16, 2022.
This was our first time back in-person to City Theatre since January 2020. The renovations are nice and make the lounge area more comfortable. I made myself laugh when I was able to immediately locate our “official theater reusable cup” where they’ve been on stand by for the past two+ years and toss them into my purse before we left the house.
It was time for reentry.
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