Lynn Nottage is taking Berks to Broadway. Again.
Until recently, Clyde’s Diner had lived only in the imagination of double Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage. On Wednesday, though, the Berks-based play and its eclectic cast of formerly incarcerated kitchen workers opens on Broadway as one of the first post-COVID offerings, directed by Nottage’s frequent collaborator Kate Whoriskey.
“’Clyde’s’ is certainly inspired by the time I spent interviewing folks in Reading,” Nottage said. “But it is set at a diner that could be on any of the little roads in Berks near the interstates traveled by truckers.”
Clyde, played by Emmy winner Uzo Aduba, is the controlling diner owner who wants to keep the help in line, while they want to realize their dreams and a better future by creating the perfect sandwich. The play also stars Emmy winner Ron Cephas Jones, Edmund Donovan, Reza Salazar and Kara Young.
“Clyde’s” is a hopeful, dramatic comedy, Nottage said. (“In my opinion, it is,” she said, laughing.)
Complex, flawed characters
The characters are complex and flawed, but Nottage wrote it to be warm, uplifting and hopeful. It is a completely different animal than “Sweat,” which brought her to Reading a decade ago.
“What happens to someone who has made a huge, huge mistake and is trying to return back to his community,” Nottage said. “How do you find ways to heal?”
Those were questions that she thought Jason, from the critically acclaimed “Sweat” could answer.
“He’s a character that I brought from ‘Sweat,’” Nottage said.
“Sweat” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2017.
“I was tracing his journey after he was released from prison, and he found himself in a liminal space occupied by many formerly incarcerated people,” she said.
Nottage said she was interested in investigating how that might look and how it might be a hopeful experience. She wanted to explore where that catalytic crossroads might take him.
“One reason I wanted to write about this is that there are challenges that folks face when they ‘transgressed’ and are trying to battle their demons,” she said. “How do you battle your demons both personal and professional and find ways to push back all the negative forces and reach towards joy?”
In fact that is precisely the moment where her characters at the diner live. She said they are looking for — and hopefully finding — “mindful resiliency.”
Believes in healing
It is impossible to heal without it, Nottage said. And Nottage ultimately believes in healing.
“The plays (‘Sweat’ and ‘Clyde’s’) are completely different,” she said. “They are tangentially in conversation because they are inspired by the same research, but they are really different in tone and texture. They are very different plays.”
Nottage said she felt she had begun to tell Jason’s story in “Sweat,” but it was unfinished.
“It felt for me as though I had opened up a conversation that wasn’t entirely complete,” she said. “And I wanted to bring some closure. I began writing ‘Clyde’s’ when I was still working on ‘Sweat’ and in Reading and I wanted to focus on the joyful life-affirming qualities in the people I met.”
Nottage was raised in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, N.Y., where she still lives. Her brother is an assistant district attorney, and she has family members who have spent many years incarcerated. Both of those helped to flesh out the backstory of “Clyde’s.”
While that freed her to write about the subject matter, it was her relationship with Berks County that allowed her to people her canvas. That relationship with Reading began more than a decade ago as part of research into how a stagnant economy was shaping post-industrial cities. While “Sweat” came from the stark realities of those interviews, the people made an unforgettable impression on Nottage. and she found herself back in the city several more times.
Not only has “Sweat” been performed here, Nottage was co-creator and writer of the multi-media performance art piece “This is Reading” in 2017, with her husband, Tony Gerber, and director Whoriskey.
“That experience really captured the people of the city,” she said.
Nottage relayed a story where a man who had been living in his car after release from prison asked about available jobs, and the crew was able to find him work. Once the production was finished, a crew member extended that to a recommendation for employment at a local hotel.
Held back by fear
Nottage said it is often only fear that keeps people from reaching out to others.
“You have to reset and recalibrate people’s minds,” she said. “You can look beyond people’s mistakes.”
It is one theme of “Clyde’s.”
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of giving people an opportunity,” Nottage said. “And that is what the piece is about. It’s about looking beyond people’s mistakes and understanding the full complexity of who they are. It’s about second chances.”
If you go
Where: The Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., New York City
When: Opens Wednesday for previews; officially Nov. 22.
Showtimes: Tuesday-Friday at 7 p.m.; Saturday 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday 2 and 7 p.m.
Tickets: $79-$199, available at 2st.com