Theater / Film
Zoetic Stage’s quest for the perfect sandwich is food for thought in Lynn Nottage’s ‘Clyde’s’
From left, Kristian Bikic, Randy Coleman, Karen Stephens, Gabriell Salgado and Sydney Presendieu in Zoetic Stage’s “Clyde’s” in previews on Thursday, Nov. 2 and opening, Friday, Nov. 3 through Sunday, Nov. 19 at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, Miami. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon, ra-haus/Adrienne Arsht Center)
For the second year in a row, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage has topped the list of the country’s most-produced playwrights, with 22 productions of different Nottage plays planned by regional theaters.
Her play “Clyde’s,” which ran on Broadway from November 2021 to January 2022 and has just opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse, will be this year’s second most-produced play regionally, with 14 productions.
One of those productions will launch the 2023-2024 season for Miami’s Zoetic Stage, which performs in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Previewing on Thursday, Nov. 2 and opening Friday, Nov. 3, the comedy – which has as many layers as a sky-high old-school Dagwood sandwich – runs through Sunday, Nov. 19.
The sandwich metaphor may seem odd when applied to the work of an artist whose Pulitzers were awarded in 2009 for “Ruined” (about women’s struggles to survive the violence of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and 2017 for “Sweat” (locked-out steelworkers and their families in Reading, Pa., cope with economic disaster). Zoetic’s last season opener, Nottage’s “Mlima’s Tale,” was similarly and heartbreakingly serious in its exploration of the illegal ivory trade and the slaughter of a majestic African elephant.
This time, though, “Clyde’s” serves up laughs aplenty. And sandwiches. Lots and lots of sandwiches.
For Stuart Meltzer, who is staging “Clyde’s,” he says: “It shows that a systemic circle of negativity doesn’t always have to be there. You can swim to land if you want to.”
“Clyde’s” is set in a truck stop sandwich shop in Berks County, Pa. The place is operated by the tough-as-nails Clyde (Carbonell Award winner Karen Stephens), who shares one particular item of personal history with her four employees: All were formerly incarcerated, and the diner represents their only post-prison job opportunity.
In a Zoom conversation from Nottage’s childhood home in Brooklyn (she and her filmmaker husband Tony Gerber now own it), the playwright says the idea for “Clyde’s” began brewing as she was interviewing people in Reading before writing “Sweat.”
“One of the common threads I found was that many were formerly incarcerated. I think that’s because of the spaces I liked entering – shantytowns, halfway houses, unemployment centers,” says Nottage. “They came to Reading with the hope of finding employment, but they had to check the box saying they were formerly incarcerated. Therefore, their options were limited.”
Given the darkness of “Sweat,” Nottage wanted to write a comedy about hope, redemption and resilience. She knew that humor can be disarming and wanted to give “three dimensions to folks who are not really seen.” The characters who began speaking to her as she was writing “Clyde’s” were “just funny, full of joy and full of life.”
Though “Clyde’s” is a comedy, it shares at least a little DNA with Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” Nottage’s characters are free to come and go, of course, but Clyde uses condescension and cruelty to nip their dreams of a better life in the bud.
Nottage says in her script that the kitchen where the play takes place is a “liminal space,” a kind of threshold or limbo or purgatory between what came before and what could follow. And while Clyde may not be the devil, she appears to have made a deal with the prince of darkness.
“Clyde is the personification of all the obstacles these people face; someone who is on the surface enticing but underneath somewhat diabolical, the manifestation of all the things they fear,” says the playwright.
The role of Clyde is often played by physically imposing women whose size becomes another weapon in their arsenal of intimidation. Though she sports Clyde’s bold wardrobe, big jewelry and talon-like nails, Stephens is a slender woman who stands just 5’3″. But she has Clyde’s nature down cold.
“She’s the boss, the overseer, oppressive and cruel,” Stephens says. “Her No. 1 objective is to keep these people down. She pulled them out of their s—holes. She needs them to not strive to be better,” says the actor. “She’s the representation of how society treats them and how they view themselves as unworthy of anything more.”
On Clyde’s crew are Montrellous (Randy Coleman), a man who has dedicated himself to inner peace and the creation of a perfect sandwich; Rafael (Gabriell Salgado), a goofy guy with a romantic streak; Letitia (Sydney Presendieu), a single mother who keeps getting drawn back to her abusive ex; and Jason (Kristian Bikic), a standoffish white supremacist whose face and neck tattoos let his BIPOC coworkers know his point of view.
Jason is the only character who appeared in “Sweat.” Nottage put him in “Clyde’s,” she says, “because I felt that of all the characters in ‘Sweat,’ he’s the most unresolved. The play ends before we understand where he’s landed.”
Bikic knows Jason is the outsider in “Clyde’s,” the last to be hired and someone unlikely to be accepted by the others.
“He’s trying to move on from his past. He’s looking for forgiveness . . . He finds solace in the kitchen with this unlikely group, but because of his physical appearance, he can’t hide who he is,” says Bikic.
He adds of Nottage’s writing, “Her language is so deeply rooted in reality, yet there’s such a heightened element to it while it remains truthful. It’s a recipe for magic.”
Of Montrellous, Coleman says, “He has his eyes set on the prize, big plans, dreams and aspirations. He’s not scared. He feels he has to look out for these young ones and share his wisdom.”
Presendieu, the only cast member who was also in Zoetic’s “Mlima’s Tale,” compares Clyde to “that warden boss you have to defeat in the final stages of a video game.” Although her character Letitia (aka Tish) respects Clyde as another Black woman who was also formerly incarcerated, she feels broken by her impossible-to-please boss. She’s also wary of Rafael, who seems sweet and protective of her but more like a big goofy kid, not the go-getter she needs.
“I love a Nottage play. It has so many layers,” says Presendieu.
Salgado, who will return to Miami New Drama Jan. 25-Feb. 18 in “Two Sisters and a Piano” written and directed by Miami Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz, sees similarities between himself and Rafael.
“We have a lot in common, up to a point,” says Salgado. “He’s an innocent, honest, goofy guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s romantic and a people pleaser. He protects himself by being submissive and eager to learn.”
Like the others in “Clyde’s,” Salgado has to make sandwiches at precise moments throughout the 90-minute play – while handling ingredients and knives. Though he’s not a superbly trained chef like Jeremy Allen White’s Carmy in the Hulu series “The Bear,” Salgado thinks he can handle the speaking and cooking combo in “Clyde’s.”
“This (role) is like a dance,” he says.
“Gabe and Sydney and Kristian have to learn their (roles) with the choreography,” he says. “Especially Gabe, who has so many comic bits. We had to figure out how to create realistic chaos.”
Says Nottage: “Directors are always surprised by how complicated it is to keep the kitchen alive.”
WHAT: “Clyde’s” by Lynn Nottage
WHERE: Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
WHEN: Previews 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 19
COST: $55 and $60
INFORMATION: 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org
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