Review: ‘Clyde’s’ at Berkeley Rep (*****)

Cyndii Johnson as Letitia and Wesley Guimarães as Rafael in Lynn Nottage’s Tony Award-nominated play Clyde’s. (Photo by Muriel Steinke/Berkeley Rep)

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Lynn Nottage, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony Award nominee is a powerful voice in contemporary theatre, no doubt about it. Clearly influenced by the great August Wilson (arguably the greatest playwright of the 20th century) she has learned her lessons well. Her mastery of the intersection where the forces of history meet the individual human soul is dazzling, and superbly on display in “Clyde’s.”

Clyde’s is a kind of purgatory, or perhaps even a level of Hell itself, a truck stop restaurant where convicts who can’t find work elsewhere serve sandwiches to tough customers.

But none of the customers is as tough as tough-as-nails Clyde, a convict herself, who runs her restaurant as if she were leading a chain gang in the old South. She is attractive, charismatic, funny, smart, and undeniably cruel.

Her employees include the mysterious Montrellous, who makes a spiritual path of his sandwich making, and his fervent disciples Letitia and Rafael. Letitia is a single mother who clearly has known a lifetime of poverty, but, in spite of her tough girl exterior, conveys a gentleness of spirit and a winning capacity for joy. Rafael is a young man who appreciates her. In difficult circumstances, he is able to maintain an emotional vulnerability that is hugely appealing.

Under the watchful guidance of elder Montrellous, Letitia and Rafael have learned to approach their sandwich making as a sort of meditation, and together they dream of making a success of Clyde’s, the kind of success that would rescue them from the purgatory that is the life of a convicted felon released from incarceration. Clyde herself offers little encouragement, teasing and flirting with Montrellous, then resisting his advances and threatening Letitia and Rafael with the loss of their jobs. These four characters are strikingly and sympathetically realized by excellent actors: Harold Surratt as Montrellous, April Nixon as Clyde, Wesley Guimrãesas .Rafael, and, especially  Cyndii Johnson as Letitia, who brings depth to a character who could easily be caricatured

The last character to enter this scene and complete the ensemble is the silent, armored Jason, played with intensity by Louis Reyes Mcwilliams. Jason is an outsider to the group, the only one who is not a person of color, younger than the others, and sporting intimidating and racist prison tattoos. The kitchen team is slow to warm to Jason, but they do, as Jason joins them in their quest for sandwich excellence.

Nottage’s script takes us into the inner lives of each of these convicts as they try to maintain their spiritual and emotional cores under extremely trying circumstances. All are sympathetic and appealing except for Clyde, who appears to have been broken by life and perhaps even to have lost her soul.

The play reveals how the others, even with the negative example of Clyde to wear them down, are able to keep their souls and it seems like a miracle that they do.

Last but not least, I should note the excellent work of the designers, who bring this bit of purgatory to impressive, naturalistic life: set by Wilson Chin, costumes by Karen Perry, Lighting by Amith Chandrashaker, sound by Audrey Dube, and hair/wig/makeup design by Megan Ellis.

Nottage and company, directed with meticulous care by Taylor Reynolds, offer us a wonderful, mysterious, fabulous and poetic piece of theatre that really satisfies. “Clyde’s” serves up one hell of a theatrical feast!

“Clyde’s” plays at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through February 26, 2023. For further information click here.


Rating: *****

(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Clyde’s” by Lynn Nottage. Co-produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Huntington Theatre Company. Director: Taylor Reynolds. Scenic Design: Wilson Chin. Costume Design: Karen Perry. Lighting Design: Amith Chandrashaker. Sound Design: Audrey Dube. Hair, Wig, and Makeup Design: Megan Ellis.


Rafael: Wesley Guimrães. Letitia: Cyndii Johnson. Jason: Louis Reyes Mcwilliams. Clyde: April Nixon. Montrellous: Harold Surratt. 

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