Encore Michigan

Review: Lynn Nottage’s ‘Clyde’s’ at The Detroit Public

Review May 14, 2024 David Kiley

DETROIT, MI–Having been once before to the Detroit Public Theatre a couple of years ago to see DPT’s excellent production of Dominique Morisseau’s Mud Row, I had expectations of seeing Clyde’s, by acclaimed and double Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage, in much the same format. Mud Row was presented in-the-round, and the whispered amazement of people around me at seeing the space completely transformed into a very intimate proscenium setting leads me to believe that this is new territory for the Public, and we can look forward to a future of productions in any number of configurations. The stage setup as you walk to your seat is inches away, and I genuinely wish I liked this show more.

Clyde’s tells the story of five people who work in a truck stop restaurant, and the commercial kitchen that the entire story unfolds in is rendered in stunningly realistic detail. And, I suppose, so is the action on stage in that the presentation is of five people that we really come to know well and intimately as they do. But not enough actually happens in the story.

Explaining the plot of Clyde’s is not an easy endeavor because there is so little plot to behold. The audience is instead shown an in-depth character study about five people in desperate straits (Clyde herself has her own master’s wrath to stave off), held down in life by the weight of their past mistakes and struggling to get a foothold on a kind of a future.

The play begins with the eponymous Clyde, who at first seems to embody the stereotype of the loving, but no-nonsense Black matriarch, talking with one of her employees about the crucible she was raised in and how it made her into the woman she is today. As the time elapses, that stereotype is shattered by Clyde being the most evil person imaginable in these circumstances, more Gaddafi than Madea. The fact we quickly learn about Clyde from her employees is that she only hires former prisoners/current parolees to work at her restaurant, which at first blush sounds like she may be a complicated but good hearted figure. In fact, she only hires these people because their desperation to keep their jobs makes them easy to abuse and manipulate. Clyde, to put it mildly, is bad news.

Also working in the kitchen: Rafael, the happy-go-lucky sous chef; Tish, a single Mom with an ex she’s better off without; Jason, the new hire covered in gang and white supremacist tattoos; Montrellous, Clyde’s oldest, longest-tenured employee who manages the kitchen, and is the staff’s resident life guru. In the course of the 90 minutes, nothing all that unexpected happens. There are several moments where I thought the seeds of a traditional plot had been planted, but the last time this happened was more than halfway through, and it became clear there wasn’t going to be one.

Is there a workplace romance between the two characters who are constantly flirting? Of course. Does the only character with an admitted addiction relapse? Absolutely. Does the kid with the Nazi tattoos have a more nuanced story? Certainly! But while Nottage does a tremendous job of creating a universe and filling it with believable characters, one event never really leads to another. These vignettes could mostly be seen in any order, and when at the end all the characters make a collectively fateful choice, they haven’t improved their situation at all.

None of this to demean the work of the troupe here, as all the characters are extraordinarily fleshed out and believable, which is a tribute to the partnership between author and actor. All the roles in Clyde’s are of roughly equal size, except for, ironically, that of Clyde. Clyde is off stage for long stretches of time, but her shadow hangs over the kitchen like that of Darth Vader, who famously got eight minutes of screen time in the first Star Wars movie.

Kelli Crump fills this role completely and really makes you genuinely hate Clyde. Erik Hernandez and Marie Muhammad as Rafael and Tish, whose star-crossed and probably doomed relationship is the closest thing to an overarching plot as exists here, are instantly likable and sympathetic. As Jason, the new guy with the mysterious past and the plethora of ink, Alexander Pobutsky almost certainly doesn’t really have white supremacist tattoos (it’s a terrible way to get ahead in the American performing arts), but honestly makes you believe that he could–kudos to both him and the makeup department. Brian Marable, who was great in Mud Row, and is great here, though this role is written to be maybe a little too angelic to serve the theme. Not only is Marable’s Chef Montrellous innocent of the thing he was sent to prison for, but the guy he took the rap for in a Christ-like self sacrifice was ALSO innocent, which seems a little convenient in establishing moral clarity. 

In reading the reviews of other productions of this show around the country, I’m struck by how different reviewers think it’s about different things. I’ve seen it called a plea for prison reform, and another called it a statement about how slavery in America is alive and well. In the end, it seems that a truly excellent playwright had an idea which got to the page and then to the stage without ever being completely finished. I enjoyed Clyde’s for the performances, but wish it had been twenty minutes longer and more clearly about something in particular.

(Clyde’s is playing at Detroit Public Theatre at 3960 Third Ave. in [Midtown] Detroit, now through June 2nd. Tickets are available at www.detroitpublictheatre.org, or by calling the box office at 313-974-7918. Questions? Write to ‘boxoffice@detroitpublictheatre.org’)