NEW YORK – It’s one thing for a play to succeed on Broadway. It’s quite another for it to make it all the way to Rikers Island.
The city’s central prison was where “Clyde’s” bowed recently, through the wonders of simulcasting and one theater company’s efforts to bring a comedy-drama about men and women who had been behind bars to an audience still confined there.
The occasion was unique in the 90-year history of the correctional institution, located on an island between the Bronx and Queens. Lynn Nottage’s critically acclaimed Broadway play, about a group of men and women working in the kitchen of a Pennsylvania truck stop after doing prison time, seemed a natural fit.
So, as theatergoers took their seats on this Wednesday in January at the Helen Hayes Theater in midtown, a roomful of detainees in the prison’s unit reserved for military veterans gathered around a TV screen. And for the next 100 minutes, they shared the experience of live theater, as conjured by a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and a cast eager to get their reactions.
Theater artists often speak of their aspirations for social relevance, especially in work focused squarely on contemporary issues. That aim has long been close to Nottage’s heart. Her 2017 play, “Sweat,” concerns a failing factory where White workers are being replaced by immigrant laborers recruited at lower wages. She won one of her two Pulitzers for “Sweat,” which not only played Broadway but also was taken by New York’s Public Theater on a tour of community and union halls across the Rust Belt. (Her other Pulitzer was for “Ruined,” about women working at a bar in the Congo who are caught in the crossfire of civil war.)
“Clyde’s,” like “Sweat” directed by Kate Whoriskey and set in the environs of Reading, Pa., was an outgrowth of Nottage’s research in Reading. The region was a magnet for those recently released from Pennsylvania prisons because it had an abundance of blue-collar jobs.
The idea of offering the show free to a unit at Rikers struck the playwright as inspired. If a play presents the possibility of holding a mirror up to society, how much more meaningful can it be for a specially arranged audience when it turns that mirror on them?
“One of the things I remain interested in is figuring out ways in which we make theater more accessible, and it’s not just about making tickets cheaper,” Nottage said in a phone interview. “That’s not purely what accessibility is. It’s also unpacking ways in which theater breaks down barriers, and also interrogating the notion of whether theater has to be in a box.”
That impulse to expand theater’s boundaries was in sync with the mission of the Art for Justice Fund, a New York-based foundation seeking to reform prison sentencing and end mass incarceration. Established in 2017 by philanthropist and arts patron Agnes Gund, the fund set as a goal giving $100 million over five years to dozens of artists and arts groups that share the organization’s philosophy. Having raised an extra $25 million, the fund has extended its grant-making an additional 18 months, according to project director Helena Huang.
What compelled the Art for Justice Fund to underwrite the event, Huang explained, was the play’s humanely three-dimensional characters – portraiture that revealed “our values are very aligned.” “You’re not thinking about them as hardened felons with all that kind of heavy baggage,” Huang said. “You begin to see them as the individuals they are.
“What we are so lacking now is our ability to hold onto complexity, and this play allows us those opportunities.”
The opportunity appealed, too, to Second Stage Theater, producers of “Clyde’s” that ended its limited run on Jan. 16. Khady Kamara, executive director of the nonprofit company, said the relationship with the Art for Justice Fund came about as Second Stage looked for ways to return from the pandemic with more emphasis on social action. “We wanted to reopen differently and learn from all the tough lessons of the shutdown and really open with an impact on our community,” Kamara said. “To go above and beyond just telling the story on the stage.”
The company sealed that commitment by creating paid, 14-week internships at Second Stage for three young people who’d had encounters with the criminal justice system. The apprenticeships in general management, production and front-of-house operations, Kamara said, were intended to highlight so-called fair chance hiring practices and provide the kind of exposure and basic training that might allow the interns to acquire full-time employment in the industry. A job fair for other young people in similar straits is also in the works.
“We learn from this, we gain from it, it allows us to diversify and grow our pool potential of workers,” Kamara said.
With a five-person cast led by Uzo Aduba – playing a corrosively funny cafe owner, unrestrained in her bullying of vulnerable employees – “Clyde’s” is that rare piece of narrative art that paints formerly incarcerated people as whole human beings. The plot touches only tangentially on the crimes for which they served their sentences; the story revolves more centrally around their striving for material and spiritual comfort, symbolized by their amusing, collective efforts to create the perfect sandwich.
“It’s not exploitative,” said Aduba, who won an Emmy for her role in “Orange Is the New Black,” the popular Netflix series about women in a New York state prison. “We’re curious about prisons, but we often find people are less concerned with the ‘after.’ This play really is a deeper dive into the after and what that reality is. And how returnees are disregarded.”
These attributes persuaded Rikers officials that extending Second Stage’s simulcasting of “Clyde’s” to the prison made sense. “We had read about the play and really felt that this would be a perfect opportunity to take a chance on something like this,” said Tommy Demenkoff, an actor and director of performing arts for the New York City Department of Correction.
Lindsey Lybrand, an art therapist and the department’s director of fine arts, stressed that it helps when the material speaks directly to issues like the transition to life on the outside. “While we do want to give people a step away from being in jail,” she said, “there is a component here, about making these things relatable.”
On the morning after the performance, the 15 or so prison spectators gathered again for a talkback on Zoom with Nottage, Whoriskey, cast members Kara Young and Reza Salazar and representatives of the Art for Justice Fund. From the detainees came questions about Nottage’s literary influences and remarks about how realistic the relationships among the characters seemed.
“The language that was used was quite accurate, because that’s the way we all talk about the incarcerated, anyway,” observed one of the Rikers detainees. “It was more geared to an older audience,” he continued. “So it makes it more enjoyable, and we can laugh at the kind of things that was said in the play that you won’t usually see, or it might be censored in other environments.”
“I think the ending was superb,” another detainee said. “Because the way they walked off the stage was like, ‘You’re not going to treat me this way!’ They walked out with their heads high.”
Nottage tried to communicate her own understanding of what people in jail go through. “I had an uncle who spent more of his life in prison than outside of prison, because every time he got out, he found it really difficult,” she said. “I mean, he was a brilliant dude. And if he had had all the resources necessary to uplift him, he could be a CEO. And I believe that 100 percent.”
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