When Lynn Nottage began writing her comedy “Clyde’s,” she viewed it in some ways as an extension of her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Sweat. “Clyde’s” isn’t a sequel, but it, too, examines struggling working-class folks who are getting squeezed out of the American Dream in a nation where the chasm between haves and have-nots is growing.
While “Sweat” focused on a group of union workers facing layoffs and a lockout at their factory, “Clyde’s” centers on a beleaguered kitchen staff, all formerly incarcerated folks, who toil in a truck-stop sandwich shop. The Tony-nominated play, which ran on Broadway in 2021-22, receives its Boston debut from the Huntington, beginning Friday, at the company’s Huntington Theatre.
“Clyde’s,” Nottage says, rests on “the same foundation that gave birth to ‘Sweat.’ ” As part of her research for the latter play, she spent years visiting Reading, Pa., a city that embodied the economic hardships facing Americans buffeted by globalization and the decline of manufacturing. During her time there, she got to know a diverse array of people. While her interviews with a group of steelworkers served as the foundation for “Sweat,” which the Huntington staged in 2020, a different set of conversations, with people who’d spent time in prison, inspired “Clyde’s.”
“Some of those conversations stayed with me and didn’t quite belong in ‘Sweat,’ but I felt like I wanted to explore them,” she says.
While “Sweat” is a drama that ends in tragedy and heartbreak, “Clyde’s” is a feisty comedy. “I really wanted to write something that leaned into optimism and explored the resilience of a lot of the people that I encountered,” she says. “I wanted to write something that was playful and healing.”
Coming out of the turbulence and uncertainty of the pandemic, Nottage knew the audience would be craving buoyancy. “Laughter is the easiest conduit to the truth. When you’re laughing, you feel a sense of release and vulnerability that allows you to sit in that moment in a very different way.”
The most produced play among regional theaters nationwide this season, “Clyde’s” follows the hard-working cooks, each of whom has served time, toiling at a roadside cafe, creating sandwiches for hungry truckers and trying not to melt under the withering gaze and scalding putdowns of Clyde (April Nixon), their boss. It’s a tough gig, but the restaurant is one of the only places they can get hired.
Encouraged and mentored by mystery man Montrellous (Harold Surratt), the cooks enthusiastically share their ideas and visions for the perfect sandwich whenever Clyde isn’t around. There’s feisty, self-possessed Letitia (Cyndii Johnson), a.k.a. Tish, who’s caring for a child with a disability at home, and playful, big-dreamer Rafael (Wesley Guimarães), a recovering addict with a crush on Tish. Into the lively mix arrives the skittish, tattoo-covered Jason (Louis Reyes McWilliams), who was recently released from prison.
Also a character in “Sweat,” Jason commits a heinous act of violence at the end of that play. But in “Clyde’s,” he just wants to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. “In many ways he’s the most unredeemable and unresolved character in ‘Sweat,’ ” Nottage says. “So I wanted to explore whether it was possible for someone who’s committed that kind of crime to find a way to heal and re-enter the culture and become productive as opposed to destructive.”
Montrellous is inspired by someone Nottage met in Reading. While in prison the man had eventually earned his PhD, she says. When he returned home, he started an empowerment committee for Black and brown small-business owners. “He was a beacon of light and joy, someone who brought a lot of positivity and optimism,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to capture that energy.”
The dagger-tongued Clyde, Nottage says, represents all the obstacles these characters face. “She’s the constant reminder that’s nagging at them, that no matter how hard they try, there’s always going to be someone who’s not going to be invested in their success.”
In Nottage’s conversations with formerly incarcerated people, no one talked much about their hopes and dreams. Those she interviewed were grappling with the most practical and pressing questions. “How do I feed myself? How do I get a job? How do I move from this halfway house to my own home when it’s impossible to find a job to pay my rent?”
Says the play’s director, Taylor Reynolds, “How do you move forward when you have your past holding onto you so tightly? I hope people think about the assumptions that we make about formerly incarcerated folks.”
Nottage says she was intrigued by the ways people “assemble the tools that are at hand to figure out how to resurrect their lives when they’re facing these insurmountable obstacles, and how they find room to infuse their lives with joy and creativity.”
That’s where sandwich-making comes in. There’s a lot of food preparation and cooking in “Clyde’s,” and it’s riveting to watch characters take different ingredients and combine them in new ways. “In the end, what they realize is that the perfect sandwich is the sum total of all of their creativity,” Nottage says, “and it can’t be conjured without the contributions of everyone.”
That’s a metaphor for America, she adds. And also the theater, which has been a sustaining force for Nottage. When stages finally reopened after the COVID shutdown, her calendar was overflowing. Within a span of a few months, “Clyde’s” opened in New York, the Michael Jackson musical “MJ,” for which she wrote the book, debuted on Broadway and went on to win four Tony Awards, and an opera adaptation of her breakthrough 2003 play “Intimate Apparel” was produced at Lincoln Center Theater. “It was quite stressful,” she says. “I won’t lie to you.”
She takes solace in the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, a concept that values imperfection, impermanence, and ephemerality, and it was a guiding force in writing “Clyde’s.”
“It’s about finding the beauty in things that are not deemed to be perfect or perceived as broken but can be repaired in ways that allow for a new contemplation of that object,” she says. “How should you look at something that society has decided is broken? If you see a crack in something and you examine why that crack is there, you can have a completely new perspective on that individual or on that thing.”
Presented by the Huntington, in a coproduction with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. At the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. March 24-April 23. Tickets from $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.