At the heart of a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop stands Montrellous, a sandwich sage who stacks his ingredients with the utmost care. In Clyde’s, the latest national hit from Lynn Nottage, the sense of peace Montrellous finds in his artful creations is one of many layers that, like any good sandwich, brings out the qualities in everything around it. Now playing at Studio Theatre under the careful direction of Candis C. Jones, Clyde’s builds on Nottage’s work in the small town of Reading, Pennsylvania—which won her a Pulitzer Prize for her first entry, Sweat—culminating in a signature blend of pathos and insight.
Montrellous (Lamont Thompson) and his coworkers Letitia (Kashayna Johnson) and Rafael (Brandon Ocasio) labor in the kitchen of Clyde’s, a truckdriver favorite ruled over by the imperious Clyde herself (Dee Dee Batteast). The trio are formerly incarcerated and hardly stand a chance of steady employment elsewhere—easy pickings for Clyde, also formerly incarcerated and possessed of a mean streak a mile wide. Enter Jason (Quinn M. Johnson), who was sent to prison for a violent crime (described in Nottage’s Sweat) and emerges with white supremacist gang markings on his face and a desire for nothing more than to keep his head down. Jason immediately rubs the charming, candid Letitia the wrong way; Rafael is equally put off, though he is far more interested in putting on his best moves to win Letitia’s wounded heart. All of them served time for different reasons, yet all are motivated by two things: a desire to stay on the outside and an admiration for Montrellous’ culinary genius. Each tries to win over Montrellous with a creation of their own, all while Clyde, riddled with debt and wounded by her own stint in prison, fights to keep her staff firmly on the ground and firmly under her thumb.
Like any ensemble drama, Clyde’s rests on the strengths of its performers. In that sense, Jones’ production is very well served. Thompson’s sonorous voice accentuates the allure in Montrellous’ wisdom and provides a compelling counterpoint to the imposing Batteast, who cuts Clyde’s intimidation with a cheeky grin and a knack for letting her gaze do the talking. Ocasio initially comes across as all flair but digs deep into Rafael’s heartbreak after a major disappointment threatens to send him backsliding, while Quinn M. Johnson is admirably restrained as the shameful, furious Jason.
Perhaps the juiciest role goes to Kashayna Johnson, who gracefully takes Letitia through cycles of fierce criticism, playful cheer, soulful longing, and crippling anxiety. Each character is also thoughtfully articulated by Danielle Preston, whose costumes mark changes in demeanor (note a small but significant adjustment to Rafael’s wardrobe) and subtly but clearly indicate the ways they move through an unforgiving world (exhibit A: Clyde’s figure-hugging, professional chic outfits).
In a sense, Clyde’s itself can be thought of as a sixth character, a place with its own ramshackle charm thanks to Junghyun Georgia Lee’s sets and Deb Thomas’ suitably eclectic array of props. While they lend verisimilitude to the play’s greasy spoon environs, it’s what gets made in that space that draws the eye. As in Intimate Apparel, recently at Theatre J, Nottage illustrates that objects—sandwiches in this case, all overseen by expert consultants from DC icon Ben’s Chili Bowl—can come to mean so much more than the sum of their parts. That point is accentuated in the dreamy haze, evoked by Colin K. Bills’ lighting design, that descends on Montrellous and his pupils whenever they conceptualize their perfect sandwiches. These cues are a garnish rather than a core ingredient, yet in a play that continually cycles back to the characters’ struggles to manage life on the outside, they do add a flourish to “the most democratic of all foods,” as Montrellous describes, and highlight the sense of purpose these four chefs find in their burgeoning craft.
As dramaturg Adrien-Alice Hansel notes in the program, Clyde’s is the third play to emerge out of Nottage’s research in Reading, a town hammered by the decline of industry, a raft of economic recessions, and a social system that gives the formerly incarcerated little reprieve even when they have paid their debts. While Clyde’s offers no easy solutions to these challenges—and while it leaves certain characters’ roles in perpetuating these conditions maddeningly unclear—it does point to how people caught in such a vice find community in one another. Though Clyde’s might leave you hungry for more, time spent with the staff of this downhome establishment is time well spent.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, no intermission.
EXTENDED: Clyde’s plays through April 16, 2023, in the Victor Shargai Theatre at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($65-$105, with low-cost options and discounts available), go online or call the box office at 202-332-3300.
The program for Clyde’s is online here.
March 25 (2 PM): Sign-interpreted performance
March 26 (2 PM): Audio described performance
COVID Safety: All performances of Clyde’s are masks recommended. Patrons who are feeling unwell are asked to remain at home and call the box office to make new ticketing arrangements. Studio Theatre’s complete Health and Safety protocols are here.