In Clyde’s, now playing at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater, Uzo Aduba is playing a formerly incarcerated woman, creating obvious parallels to her two-time Emmy-winning turn in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
“I spent a lot of time on a TV project that had certain themes that are echoed in this play,” says Aduba. “Clyde’s captures the moment after. It’s almost like the sequel—that follow up, that ‘where are they now?’ Rarely do we actually get the opportunity to see what life looks like after people have gone through [incarceration].” Now, they’re working day and night to avoid going back into that lifestyle.
That’s where Clyde’s begins: at a truck stop diner on the side of the road. It’s known for its sandwiches, but the space isn’t just about the nosh. Every day, Clyde is rebuilding her own life by running a restaurant that employs people who have gone through the prison system.
As part of her own journey, the shop owner provides jobs to characters, who without direction, might find themselves back in the exact place they don’t want to be. “In her way, she’s trying to serve as the bridge between past and present and future,” Aduba explains. Having had the experience of being forgotten by society, she can now create a space for people who are going through the same thing. “She knows what it takes to stay out and how hard it is; recidivism is real. She’s not just serving food, she’s trying to serve these souls.”
Clyde’s is not a fairy tale, however, and the character of Clyde isn’t a fairy godmother taking people under her wing to inspire a neat redemption story. “It’s easy to cast her under some pretty dim, narrow lenses,” says Aduba of the character. “A collection of life experiences have made her the woman that she is. And the real truth is that she's a survivor. She is a woman who is doing everything in her power to survive, to make it to the next day, and will do what she needs to do to ensure that.” It’s the kind of story that Aduba thrives on. “I was so captured by the chapter of life of these characters that we were getting to see played out.”
Good storytelling is what Aduba calls her “guiding light.” In Clyde’s, it’s the tale of a woman who takes her trial and turns it into triumph, but who knows what will come next? “What I really love more than anything is the story.” When the performer was first sent the play, she opened up the binder and saw “by Lynn Nottage,” which immediately piqued her interest. Having just seen Sweat on Broadway and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark Off-Broadway, Aduba knew she wanted to be involved with whatever the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner had created. “I have been a fan of her work for years.”
In addition to Nottage’s play, there’s another story unfolding off-stage that Aduba is watching very closely. “Broadway has found itself in the middle of a very important conversation that needs to be had,” says the star, in regards to the calls for equity that reached deafening levels during the pandemic. And she says theatres and leaders are answering the call. “I hope that it’s not seasonal. Lasting change is a wonderful thing, and I hope it's style, not a trend. A fabulous Chanel suit is style; a crisp white shirt is style; a perfect signature lipstick, that’s style. Acid wash jeans are a trend. Let’s not make it a trend.”
Shortly before opening November 23, the production, directed by Nottage’s frequent collaborator Kate Whoriskey, announced a series of initiatives that harmonized with Aduba’s hope for momentum toward change beyond just the theatre industry. Among them are a paid apprenticeship at Second Stage for justice system-impacted youth; weekly talkbacks hosted by social justice advocates and service providers; an art exhibit at the Hayes Theater featuring works by people impacted by the justice system; and a job fair aimed at connecting justice system-impacted individuals with job opportunities and training.
It’s a parallel to Clyde’s own attempt to serve up hoagies with a side of social justice. With Broadway making an effort to blend entertainment and meaningful representation, perhaps the trend of lip service is over and permanent change is just around the corner.