On Nov. 23 in New York City, Broadway, welcoming its newest play, hosted a television reunion. “Clyde’s,” a new play by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage starring Emmy-winner Uzo Aduba, opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre. In the audience, more than a few friends cheered Aduba on, as the cast of “Orange Is the New Black” reunited in her support.
“I can’t remember the last time we were all together,” Danielle Brooks, joined by Laura Prepon, Natasha Lyonne, Dascha Polanco and Adrienne C. Moore, told Variety at the after party, held at Bryant Park Grill. “When I did my first Broadway show, ‘The Color Purple,’ I had all of my ‘Orange is the New Black’ sisters there to cheer me on. To get to do that with Uzo right now, with this particular piece, is phenomenal.”
And that’s because “Clyde’s,” directed by Kate Whoriskey, should hit home for the cast. In the play, Aduba plays Clyde, a formerly incarcerated woman who runs a roadside sandwich stop in Pennsylvania and employs recently incarcerated workers in her kitchen, not far from where Nottage set her Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play, “Sweat.”
Clyde’s kitchen is a liminal space, a literal and figurative limbo in which her workers (Kara Young, Edmund Donovan, Reza Salazar) must figure out how to reconstitute their lives. Here, the rote work of making sandwiches materializes the thankless labor of reassembling one’s life after prison. And the rare inspiration to be creative, encouraged by the elder chef Monty (Ron Cephas Jones), emerges the small, yet transformative windows through which each can pass over to a rewarding life.
But Clyde, sadistic and uncompromising in her need to devalue her employees, is no Suzanne. Audiences came to know the nick-named Crazy Eyes as the woman Suzaanne in “Orange is the New Black,” a deeply sympathetic character who, through Aduba’s portrayal, rose as a woman with wisdom and tact, victim to circumstance. But in “Clyde’s,” Aduba’s portrayal is unforgiving, and her character, unable to extricate herself from the trauma of incarceration, reigns terror on her employees.
“You’re looking at a woman who’s been through battle, who’s been through war,” Aduba said of her character on opening night. “I work every night to defend her, to speak truth to her survival. She’s a dreamer who has watched all of her dreams fall to earth, and she’s trying to save her employees from that heartache.”
“Either we cast and dispose of everyone who goes into the system, or we forget about them when they come out,” she said, likening the play to a continuation of her work on television.
CLYDE'S OPENING NIGHT. 💃🏾 So thankful to be back on Broadway and proud to be part of this ensemble for a play that will make you feel, think and LAUGH. Swipe to see a mini reunion with some 🍊 ladies. Thank you for showing up and showing out! ✨❤️ pic.twitter.com/zTMZC3EkPh
— Uzo Aduba (@UzoAduba) November 25, 2021
Like Nottage’s “Sweat” and “Ruined,” “Clyde’s” is a masterpiece in character work, showcasing Nottage’s unique ability to push inventive structure and deeply-drawn characters forward in service of resurrecting those we’d otherwise overlook.
“We need to talk about Black women who are dealing with poverty, what it means to be black and be given these cards,” Young, who makes her Broadway debut, told Variety at the premiere. “How do they make it through their day? It’s our work in this play to live that question fully.”
Like many plays this season, “Clyde’s” pairs its onstage work with activism offstage, partnering with the Art for Justice Fund to launch a series of initiatives alongside its producer, Second Stage Theater—including paid apprenticeship programs at Second Stage for justice system-impacted youth, weekly talkbacks, job fairs and subsidized tickets for formerly incarcerated people.
“That’s the real work,” Aduba told Variety at the after party. “It’s not enough to just lead with a story. That’s a modern-day form of colonialism,” she said. “If we’re going to take stories of people who are already exploited and gain from them in commercial theater, we have to put our money where our mouth is.”