At the Unicorn, “Clyde’s” Presents Deft Social Commentary by Way of Sandwiches

Three kitchen workers have an animated discussion.

Jenise Cook, L. Roi Hawkins, and Freddy Acevedo in “Clyde’s” (Cynthia Levin/Unicorn Theatre)

Currently onstage at the Unicorn Theatre is an engaging and astute commentary on predatory capitalism and the prison industrial complex, presented by way of sandwiches. 

Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s premiered on Broadway last year and, according to the New York Times, it will be the country’s most-produced play this year. It’s not hard to see why. Logistically, the show’s small cast and single set make it a straightforward mount. (At the Unicorn, Gary Mosby’s deliberately simple set makes use of moving kitchen prep tables to keep the action from feeling stagnant, though the movements, along with Em Swenson and Taylor Sullivan’s more dramatic lighting changes, sometimes feel oddly timed or plain unnecessary.)

Clyde’s extreme popularity makes sense from more than just a logistical perspective. The play centers on a divey sandwich shop and its crew, made up entirely of formerly incarcerated workers, led by L. Roi Hawkins’ Montrellous—clearly a brilliant chef who focuses on the small enjoyments of fantasizing over the perfect sandwich and creating simple food that brings people joy. The shop’s owner, Clyde (Cecilia Ananya), herself formerly incarcerated as well, gives employment opportunities to ex-cons but not out of the goodness of her heart. Rather, she’s keen to exploit their dependence on her, eager to be a key player in a predatory system she’s found can benefit her.

The play tackles a deeply complex subject, but it is still 100% a comedy. There’s even a romantic subplot in the dynamic between Letitia and Rafael, two sandwich makers played by the supremely charming Jenise Cook and Freddy Acevedo. Given the tumultuous state of theatre, politics, and life in general over the last few years, it makes sense that audiences would be drawn to this sort of heavy social commentary presented with a light touch. It’s not full-on escapism but it does not come with the emotional toll the subject matter might be expected to warrant.

That being said, the lack of any real action in Clyde’s is likely to end up feeling unsatisfying to many. Nottage subverts expectations by allowing these characters’ history of incarceration to take a backseat to more personally pressing issues of creativity, community, and humanity. But when it does come time to address the subject of incarceration, both personally and systemically, the play seems to approach it with kid gloves. This is especially glaring in regard to new guy Jason (Zach Sudbury), the only white employee at Clyde’s, who shows up with a smattering of white supremacist face tattoos. He receives only the mildest of challenges from his POC co-workers, who give him more pushback for his refusal to put the correct sauce on a sandwich than for the hate symbol blazoned above his eyebrow. This, again, appears to be the point of the play and the relationships depicted therein, but the simplicity feels more underdeveloped than deliberately crafted.

Still, the show is clearly a major player in the current cultural landscape, and the cast and creative team at the Unicorn serve the material well. If you like your theatre to be a conversation starter, Clyde’s is designed to be just that.

“Clyde’s” runs through December 18 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or visit unicorntheatre.org.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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