Donmar Warehouse, 16 October – 2 December 2023
Review by Karla Williams
The work of Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage focuses on American working-class experience, giving voice to communities forgotten on the fringes of society, and often marginalised by circumstances outside of their control. Her 2021 play Clyde’s, focuses on the formerly incarcerated while exploring how food can help to heal the soul.
The drama is set in a truck stop sandwich shop located on the outskirts of Reading, Pennsylvania. Owned by the resentful and cynical Clyde, played by Gbemisola Ikumelo, her kitchen staff is made up entirely of ex-prisoners. They work under the direction of the unofficial head chef-cum-spiritual leader Montrellous (Giles Terera), who seeks to find the beauty in imperfection. He encourages staff members to do the same, but Clyde prefers criticism over praise. She constantly belittles and berates them, believing there to be no hope after prison. But, despite her best efforts and the daily challenges faced by each of her employees, they continue to believe in better – evidenced by their quest to create the perfect sandwich.
In a world where judgments are quickly made about former prisoners, I loved that at the heart of Nottage’s play is an examination of the person behind the criminal conviction. This is demonstrated in the character of Montrellous, whose spiritual approach to making sandwiches brings hope and faith to the entire kitchen. Montrellous went to prison in place of his younger brother, who had been framed on a drug charge. He falsely admitted to carrying the drugs so that his brother could study at Harvard and become a surgeon. His story of exceptional honour and self-sacrifice is juxtaposed with his label of ‘criminal’ in the condemnatory post-prison society.
The only character whose vulnerability we never see is Clyde’s, which I feel is a shame. She remains the same person operating the same negative pressure over the course of the play. I would have loved to have seen even the smallest chink in her impenetrable armour. Despite her propensity for cruelty, however, Gbemisola Ikumelo portrays the character with a wit and humour I couldn’t help but slightly warm to.
As the daughter of a Pentecostal pastor, I was fascinated by the theme of spirituality in humble places. During the day, the staff prepare the sandwiches on the menu. But when it’s quiet, led by Montrellous, they work on their idea of the perfect sandwich. It’s during these moments that their perspectives on life change. At one point during Lynette Linton’s superbly directed production, the preparation of a sandwich felt like a pastor uplifting his weary congregation. Supported by a stellar cast, Giles Terera is both engaging and disarming as Montrellous, maintaining the calm of a devout believer whatever Clyde throws at him.
Clyde’s doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities for people who were once in prison. But Lynn Nottage is able to highlight their humanity, humour and hope. It comes as no surprise that she is the only woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice.