By Bob Hoover
Where do writers find their inspiration? Melville found it in the sea, Twain on the Mississippi, Fitzgerald on Long Island, and Lynn Nottage in Reading, Pa.
Don’t laugh. John Updike, who grew up outside this Central Pennsylvania city, set his “Rabbit” novels there. Nottage, one of the country’s most honored playwrights, moved to the faded industrial town to research Sweat, her study of working-class people whose lives were upended and, in some cases, destroyed by the 2008 recession.
After a string of prizes, including two Pulitzers and other honors too numerous to list here, Nottage returns to Reading for Clyde’s, City Theatre Company’s season opener on Sept. 24.
Set in a truck-stop diner, Clyde’s is a comedy with an ending full of danger, said director Monteze Freeland who’s also City’s artistic co-director.
“Two forces are colliding here,” he said. “While it’s a great outright comedy, it’s about powerful issues we’re feeling today.”
Freeland appeared in the Public Theater’s production of Sweat in 2018, so he has working experience with a Nottage play. “She gets the audience thinking, maybe reflecting their own lives and remembering their own stories,” he said.
The title character is a woman who insists on hiring ex-cons to work in the kitchen. “Despite what society says about them, they’re worthy people who have to make their own choices,” Freeland said. “In many ways, she’s their new warden and can send them back to jail if she wants.’
Latonia Phipps, a New York actor, plays Clyde, and “all I can say about her is that she’s ‘combustible,” Freeland laughed. Her character spent time in jail for an unspecified crime that probably involved violence, so she’s resentful. “Her power was stolen from her,” the director said.
(Not to spoil things, but “combustible” has several meanings.)
Clyde’s has a little in common with the streaming hit, The Bear,” also set in a restaurant kitchen.
“The play shares some aspects of The Bear, the director said, “Mostly the role food plays in both. There’s a communal experience working in a kitchen creating dishes in a way that shows care, love, even.”
The talented sandwich maker Montrellous is played by Khalil Kane, a producer and actor also from New York. Montrellous’ time in jail has mellowed him, and he shows his calmness in the way he cooks,” said Freeland. “In many ways, he’s the opposite of Clyde, so there’s a collision of forces going on here.”
Clyde’s uses a character from Sweat to link the two plays and the two Pittsburgh productions. Patrick Cannon played Jason, whose actions in Sweat landed him in jail, and Cannon’s Jason is now on board in Clyde’s kitchen.
Freeland also knows a bit about restaurant work since his grandmother, and two of his uncles were in the food service business in Baltimore, his hometown.
“This play is quite a challenge for our technical staff in creating a working kitchen where real food is prepared for every performance,” Freeland said.
The kitchen designer is the timeless Tony Ferrieri. It’s his final set for City Theatre before his retirement. He’s been a fixture in Pittsburgh’s theater world for more than 40 years, designing sets for nearly 600 shows. The Pittsburgh Foundation honored him with its Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award in 2018.
“Clyde’s” runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16. Tickets: citytheatreculturaldistict.org or call 412-431-4400.