theater review

Clyde’s and In the Southern Breeze: Two Journeys Into Limbo

Clyde’s on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The sandwich shop in Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s isn’t just a sandwich shop. The Broadway comedy seems to take place in a normal place of business — Takeshi Kata’s photorealistic set looks like a kitchen in the back of the titular truck-stop diner, with the usual crowd of microwaves, dishwasher, sink, fridge, and counters all jammed into one place. Over the course of the show, actual sandwiches are assembled here, always in a hurry, as Clyde’s employees sling lettuce, pickles, relish, and cheese around their stations. If you’ve ever worked in food service, you’ll recognize their fluent activity, the reaching for the squeeze bottle of mayonnaise before you’ve even stopped reading the order ticket. In this way, it feels — and this is key for what Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey are trying to accomplish here — like a true place of work.

But at crucial moments, this reality bleeds and shifts. Sometimes shafts of divine light pierce the ceiling; other times, blazing hellfire flashes up through the floor. (Christopher Akerlind did the lighting design.) Other realms seem strangely close at hand. The teetering quality isn’t just the too-many-objects-in-a-small-space feeling of an American commercial kitchen, it’s something existential. While a swift realistic play does take place on this set, the story does double duty as a fable: Nottage’s kitchen is also a bardo where souls prepare to reenter the world.

On its surface, Clyde’s is a comic drama about surviving a dreadful boss. (Like life, amirite?) Clyde herself is a bully. She shouts at everyone working in the kitchen, from tiny, fierce Tish (Kara Young) to romantic Rafael (Reza Salazar) to newcomer Jason (Edmund Donovan). As played by a scenery-devouring Uzo Aduba, Clyde is hard-charging and derisive, only interested in selling enough toasted Wonder Bread to keep the diner solvent. Later we’ll see evidence that she beats her workers, but Clyde has an even greater sin: She refuses to be interested in food. When the curtain rises, she’s ignoring the cook Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), who begs her to try one of his new sandwich designs. This sandwich isn’t Wonder Bread — it’s a wonder. (When he gestures to it, angels sing.) The whole universe sees it as an offering crafted with love, elevated by care and imagination, but Clyde doesn’t give a damn. She laughs and stabs her cigarette at him. Then the cigarette explodes in orange flame.

A little slice of hell has leaked into the purgatorial kitchen. This is true spiritually and literally too: The people who work at Clyde’s can’t leave. It’s difficult to find a job if you’ve done time, and all of the folks at Clyde’s have prison records. Nottage touches it lightly, but being inside has marked them all — some literally. Jason, for instance, slinks into the kitchen covered with white-supremacist prison tattoos. Over the course of the play, Jason slowly develops a little understanding with Tish and Rafael, who eventually find their own refuge in each other. To disrupt these blossoming connections, Clyde explodes into their midst (each time wearing a different spectacular leatherette-and-heels outfit designed by Jennifer Moeller), but her power over the group wanes. That’s because there’s a bodhisattva among them. Montrellous teaches the younger line cooks first to picture the perfect sandwich, then to take the first steps towards actually making one. We know Jason has changed when he designs a steak sandwich out loud. “On a cheddar biscuit?” he asks, hesitantly. He imagines his own pleasure. He imagines someone else’s pleasure. Then he slams his hand down. “A cheddar biscuit.” It’s a breakthrough.

Nottage wrote Clyde’s at roughly the same time she was writing her Pulitzer Prize–winning play Sweat, and this play’s Jason is also that play’s Jason. It’s useful to have that other drama in your mind as you watch Clyde’s. (If you missed it when it came to Broadway in 2017, you can read it!) In Sweat, poverty and outsourcing rip apart a factory town, and Jason’s crime provides the show’s awful offstage climax. Clyde’s is Sweat’s foil. Sweat was long, grimly realistic, full of argument and instruction; Clyde’s is short, buoyant, and atmospheric. Sweat asks a bleak question about whether work can sustain us; Clyde’s offers a hopeful if fantastical answer. Many of the things that usually drive a play are absent in Clyde’s. It’s unclear about its stakes, and I couldn’t always follow the way action leads to reaction — but as the play lifts off into its final minutes, it enters a realm where conventional dramaturgy doesn’t apply. These characters aren’t heading for dramatic resolution. They’re aiming for a place, reached via sensual delight, of reconnection and reawakening.

Nottage isn’t the only one writing about purgatory this week. Far downtown, in a space above and behind a church, you find Mansa Ra’s In the Southern Breeze. This heartbroken play takes the opposite tack from Nottage — there the show tells us we’re in limbo right away, rather than making us try to figure it out. (The set is an infinite green field under a row of white arches.) When a man (Allan K. Washington) enters to tell us about his noisy, suicidal thoughts, we worry that he might have already passed on to the other side. “It’s so stressful being Black,” he says, “and not in some hypothetical way.” The man claims he’s shutting out the world, making himself safe, but his eyes keep rising up to somewhere in the audience, and he eventually tells us — he thinks he can see a noose there, dangling.

The second half of the lyrical fever dream consists of a meeting in the green field. The four men who pour in from either side come from various decades — one terrified runaway (Charles Browning) is fleeing from slave catchers, another is a sharecropper (Victor Williams), the third is a Black Panther (a tremendous Biko Eisen-Martin). When they realize their connections — some are related, all are dead — they try to find comfort. The most modern of all of them is Tony (Travis Raeburn), whose queer flamboyance and confidently worn sexuality seems like a harbinger of hope. They all died before liberation, but he, at least, has found a measure of it. When the Man joins them, they have learned enough from each other to give him strength as well. “We were here before the noose,” they say. If he can hear them, he might yet escape it.

On the first page of the script, Mansa Ra calls the play “autobiographical,” which is devastating. The text strides heavily through deep waters — the cast sometimes sings together, but even these moments of harmony seem to be drawn down by a terrible undertow. “Fare ye well,” they sing, “I’ll meet you on the other shore.” The experience of watching it has a chilling, drugging quality, and I left convinced that my heartbeat had slowed down, beating in time with Mansa Ra’s fugue. In this way, I think Mansa Ra achieves what Nottage only describes — namely, the process of reawakening from paralysis. Her play shows you characters who transcend, but it all seems far off, at a comically delineated distance. Mansa Ra, on the other hand, invites you into limbo with him. You emerge from the show as if you’re leaving his mind. To leave the theater, you go down a long stairwell, but it feels like rising again into life.

Clyde’s is at the Hayes Theater through January 16.

In the Southern Breeze is at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater until December 12.

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Clyde’s and In the Southern Breeze: Two Journeys Into Limbo