Berkeley Repertory Theatre,
In Co-Production with Huntington Theatre Company
“The sandwich is your pulpit; it’s where you preach the gospel of good eating.”
The lowly sandwich that many of us quickly slap together with little thought or planning rises to a cherished place of honor and homage in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s totally delicious and delightful Clyde’s, now playing in co-production with Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. Tony-nominated and written by the two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Lynn Nottage, Clyde’s takes place in the kitchen of a truck-stop diner where any sandwich drowned in pickle relish is heresy to the team of cooks who take turns dreaming of their perfect sandwich – one like “bacon, lettuce, grilled squash on cornbread with molasses butter.”
But these are not cooks graduating from the local culinary institute. These are the likes of a former bank robber, a charged assaulter, and a pharmacy thief who have been hired by the only person who would give these ex-cons a second look: Clyde who herself has seen time behind bars. Their daily lives in a kitchen where the cling of a bell constantly announces another order to be made for a hungry trucker are the raw ingredients for Lynn Nottage’s rapid-fire, edgy, hilarious, and often moving and even inspirational script. The result is a feast of fun that will assure that audiences leave Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre fully satiated.
While plot is not on the menu in Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s, this slice-of-life look at the rush-rush-rush of sandwich creation allows plenty of opportunity to meet, get to know, and to like and admire the kitchen’s four purveyors of savory meats, special sauces, selected breads, and secret condiments. That they each were once serving time in prison is from our minds after a few minutes of watching their art and overhearing their chatter. However, clearly for each of them, the “black hole” of the world of incarceration is always on their minds, especially its “gravitational pull” that sends so many like them back into prison because the outside world does little to support their being free and productive. It is also why they know they must tolerate the daily verbal abuse, unannounced scrutiny, and non-veiled threats of their sassy, callous, seemingly uncaring boss, Clyde, while at the same time being fully aware that the job she gives them is their surest key to retained freedom.
Just by the way she bursts through kitchen door from front of house, April Nixon is always larger than life in her presence as Clyde. There is nothing subtle, quiet, or understated about her Clyde. She is always dressed to kill in skin-tight, body-revealing numbers of explosive colors (kudos to Karen Perry’s costume designs), and her hair is rarely the same color or style (thanks to the hair, wig, and make-up artistry of Megan Ellis). But consistent is her pointing and often accusing finger, her voice that can slice another person to the quick with its cutting edge, and a stance/pose that always exudes command and cocky confidence. And when she decides to become a sexy cat to slide up against the butt of one of her young cooks, she knows that there is nothing he can do because she holds the power to send him (and any/all of the others) back behind bars. April Nixon gives a powerhouse performance we can only love to hate.
But hers is only one of five exceptional performances by this cast who as an ensemble, capture and keep our undivided attention through each of the ninety minutes we are privileged to be with them as they go about creating their sandwich sensations. Though he admits that for now he is only a “line cook,” Rafael sees himself as a “sous chef” who warns the others that “the grill and fryer are mine … my territory, like the yard, don’t step over the line.” But Wesley Guimarães’ Rafael’s bark is much worse than his bite. He is actually a smooth-talking, light-on-his-feet guy who has his sights on creating the perfect sandwich, one where “the first bite should be an invitation that you can’t refuse … it’ll transport you to another place, a memory, a desire.” He also is an advocate of seeing this kitchen as a place where each person can “speak the truth” about their past in order to “leave the pain in the pan.” The kitchen becomes their confessional space where they each receive support to forgive themselves for the past sins that have scarred their lives.
Rafael’s romantic side displays in full as he swirls hips and body around the kitchen in true, Latin style as he tries again and again to woo Letitia, a single mom whose useless boyfriend she must too often nervously rely on in order to take care of her daughter. Letitia takes no crap from anyone and can be snappy, hard-nosed, and foul-mouthed; but she also has eyes that can sparkle with nervous excitement as she tries to create her own ideal sandwich. She brings gritty determination to the kitchen staff to “show Clyde what we got.” Cyndii Johnson’s Letitia is at times hilarious in her views and viewpoints while at other times totally serious about the cards she has been dealt (and her own responsibility in that hard-luck hand) and what she must do going forward. She has two key motivators in her life: “I love my freedom” but “you have to fight to keep your freedom.” Cyndi Johnson’s Letitia radiates a drive to remain free and to do whatever she needs to do in order not to get sucked back into the gravitational pull of a prison’s “black hole.”
That she takes no crap and will say what is on her mind is seen when white boy Jason shuffles into the kitchen with racist tattoos on his face and neck. In no uncertain terms, she lets him know that “we don’t do that gang bullshit” or tolerate “hate speech” in here. But there is something about the overall quiet, eyes-lowered nature of Jason that soon hints that the inside of him may not be what the outside of him displays. Louis Reyes McWilliams is yet another member of this exceptional cast who brings complicated, multifaceted aspects to his character. Like an onion, it takes a while for the outer, hard parts of him to peel back and reveal a person both Letitia and Rafael come to see as a potential friend and trusted cohort. When he eventually tells them his “truth,” the moment is particularly powerful, telling, and moving.
The person that all three of these line cooks really want to emulate is the older, somewhat mysterious Montrellous, a philosopher-of-sorts espousing kitchen and life truisms. Rafael describes him as “the Buddha who grew up in the ‘hood.” Harold Surratt is mesmerizing as in soft, soothing voice he describes how walking into the produce section of a supermarket gives him “a sense of purpose” where he finds the perfect ingredients to create a sandwich that “resurrects my spirit.” For him, the sandwich is “my strength,” “my victory,” “my freedom.” As his fellow cooks stand in some awe, he bridges cooking and living life with insights like “the intangible grace of flavors and aromas … tell your story,” noting that “where my hand leads may not be where your hand takes you.” What Montrellous teaches them in words and by example that any one has the ability to create that perfect sandwich and to lead a life to be proud of.
Taylor Reynolds directs this talented cast with a deft approach whereby each can bring unique interpretations to their distinct characters while linking them all together in meaningful manners into an ensemble whose sum is much greater than all the individual parts. There is a beauty that the director has imparted to everyday movements and mundane tasks, to the scene transitions, and to the general mood that gives this kitchen a sense of truly being a haven and even a sacred place. The contrast to where each person must have been when confined as a prisoner is palpable. As the story progresses, the director and playwright create a space where the next level of freedom and self-determination can be achieved when each is commanded to cross a line that is impassable for them.
Rounding out the overall excellence of this cast and creative team are Wilson Chin, Amith Chandrashaker, and Aubrey Dube, designers of scenes, lighting, and sound respectively. The realism of the entire production (including the sight, smell, and sound of sandwiches in the making) in a result of their incredibly artistic, combined efforts.
It will be impossible ever to look at a sandwich the same again without some reflection on what it says about life itself. More importantly, after meeting and getting to know the ‘chefs’ of Clyde’s, hopefully we will remember that those who were once incarcerated deserve to find a diner, a job, and a chance such as did these four did at Clyde’s – even with a despicable boss like the owner herself – in order to give them a fighting chance not to get sucked back into the “black hole.” Once again, Lynn Nottage has scripted for us all a life-affirming/changing lesson and has wisely entrusted Berkeley Rep to bring the enlightening and entertaining evening to all of us.
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddy’s Best Bet Production
Clyde’s continues through February 26, 2023, in production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at https://www.berkeleyrep.org or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre