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Clyde's dramatizes the hopes and struggles of post-prison life

Clyde's, a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lynn Nottage, dramatizes the realities of post-prison life with humor, empathy and style.

/Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

You made a mistake. And it's a big mistake the kind they could throw you in prison for. So that's what they do. You grind your sentence out, keeping your head down, dreaming of freedom. Then, finally, you get that freedom. But here's the thing: nobody wants to hire an ex-con. You hear a lot of: "I'm sorry, but the position's been filled" and a lot of "don't hesitate to apply in the future." A lot of nothing, in other words. But then there's Clyde. She's been there; she's done time herself. Clyde is willing to give you a shot: you can cook at her truck stop diner. Which is something. But is it enough?

Clyde's, onstage at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre through January 28, is the rarest of plays: one that understands that people who have left prison aren't monsters or martyrs, but people. Lynn Nottage, the play’s author (and, not incidentally, the only woman in history to twice win the Pulitzer Prize for drama), understands working-class people. Every line is honest.

Ruth Ann Molenaar plays Clyde, the tough-talking, no-nonsense diner owner who wears devilish black and red and may be in hock to some dangerous people. It's hard not to like Clyde, at least at first; she's funny, she's got charisma and she keeps the place running. But she's dismissive, too. Maybe even cruel. And she's blatantly sexual, making remarks a boss should never say to her employees – the kind of things she probably wouldn't say if the people she was harassing weren't ex-cons. 

But hey, where else can they go?

Throughout the play, we get to know the four members of her kitchen crew: Tish (Alisha Brown), a tough, funny single mother; Rafael (Isaiah Ramirez), a hopeless romantic and a recovering addict; Montrellous, a smooth, talented chef (Ricardo Tavárez); and Jason (Jason Fuhrman), the most recent arrival: a white guy with hate-filled tattoos on his face. Throughout the play, we learn more about each of them, learning what got them into prison and what they ache to do now that they're out of it.

Cooking has become more than just a job for these people; it's become a dream. They take turns spinning out visions of delectable dishes. Sometimes, they even make them. Then the cooks watch closely as their taster digs in, knowing they'll get an honest opinion and hoping they get a rapturous one. The best dishes always belong to Montrellous. He's got something, even if Clyde refuses to see it.

I loved the humor of this play. I loved how it felt true to these characters in these circumstances. Every performance was good and some were better than good; Brown and Ramirez, as Tish and Rafael, never put a foot wrong. And Molenaar's Clyde had some fabulous moments. I loved the hope Montrellous refused to suppress.

I'm not sure that I loved the ending, which isn't to say that I'm sure I didn't like it. It dared to take a risk. A day after seeing the play, I'm still wrestling with it.

Mostly, I loved the clarity with which Clyde's presents its characters. They're not irredeemable villains, but neither are they spotless victims. They're human, with all the nuance that implies. You've met these people, or maybe you've been them. Regardless, considering that GRCT is charging pay-what-you-want for tickets, you have no excuse not to go see them onstage.

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