In the hands of some, a sandwich may be a most humble joining of Wonder Bread with a plain and prosaic filler of any sort. In another, it can be a sublime assemblage of aspiration and dreams. Such is the aesthetic divide between most of the truckers who patronize Clyde’s Sandwich Shop in Reading, PA, and the unseen kitchen staff who fill their orders.
In “Clyde’s,” two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage has written what is understandably her most popular work, which was the most produced play in America in 2022. The Berkeley Rep production exceeds every standard the script demands. A comedy in which four diverse kitchen workers reflect on life’s experiences, it brims with humanity as the characters stumble over each other’s sensibilities on the road to reaching mutual understanding and common ground. Each worker, however, shares a similar backstory. Each has been imprisoned. Clyde has also been incarcerated and hires only ex-cons.
Now, dispose any preconceptions that you may have had about the eponymous owner of the café. Clyde is black and female and vibrant. At one level, she represents an archetype in entertainment – the over-the-top, breezy, sassy, flippant, self-centered woman who fills a room when she enters and never subdues to a level of naturalness or genuineness. But she is far from innocuous. She is emotionally removed, demanding, and hostile. What’s more, her hiring ex-cons doesn’t represent altruism. She knows that a prison record makes it hard to get and keep a job and that work is often a condition of parole. She hangs a sword of Damocles over each of her employees to keep them in line.
At least while Clyde is running the front of the house, the kitchen workers are able to find relief from her oppression. Rafael, a Latino, is a light-hearted and optimistic fry cook who tries to make time with Tish, a sandwich maker, who is a black, single mother with a special-needs child, and bears all of the associated burden. A new arrival, Jason, adds another dynamic. A surly young white man, with white-supremacist gang tattoos on his face, he initially disrupts the bonhomie, but as would be expected, he eventually opens up and evolves. Interestingly, Jason is a holdover character from another Nottage play, “Sweat,” but with no clear rationale or connection.
The eminence gris is Montrellous, an older black man, who is part mentor and part mystery. He sets the standard for the unique activity that keeps the kitchen group lively and challenged – striving to create the best possible sandwich, often relying on ingredients uncommon to the working-class world around them. Rather than citing some of the attempts the characters make, I’ll describe the one I made on lunch break that could easily fit in their competition – roast beef with pickled ginger slices and fresh lemon thyme on focaccia, slathered with curried sour cream!
Clyde not only refuses to try any of the cooks’ concoctions, but is more concerned that they not experiment on her time and with her ingredients. However, her disdain does not discourage the staff from their creativity and enjoyment. Sandwiches have come to mean something significant to them, representing new horizons. They approach each new attempt with enthusiastic anticipation, even though their optimistic expectation is sometimes not borne out.
Always the philosopher, Montrellous notes that a sandwich is a meal in the hand that can be customized in an infinite number of ways. One can even argue that sandwiches symbolize democracy and freedom of choice.
The playwright also says something about people who have made mistakes. These are all decent people who, but for poor judgments or actions that may have been split-second and atypical, would not be facing the uphill battle of overcoming the black mark on their name.
Berkeley Rep’s production, directed by Taylor Reynolds, completely pleases the audience. We want these imperfect people to thrive. Well designed and crafted, the situation and performances resonate, led by the very effective, if unpleasant, characterization of Clyde by April Nixon.
“Clyde’s,” written by Lynn Nottage, is produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and plays on its Peet’s Stage at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through February 26, 2023.