Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Floyd's takes place in the kitchen of a diner outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Nottage's last play, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama winning Sweat, was also set. It is the second in a planned trilogy Nottage has conceived after spending two years, starting in January, 2012, interviewing residents of Reading about their experiences in the city of over 65,000 identified by the 2010 U.S. Census as having the greatest percent of its citizens living in poverty. This was in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, which hit rust-belt communities such as Reading especially hard. Nottage shared the interview process with director Kate Whoriskey, who directed Sweat through its early runs and on to Broadway and now returns to direct Floyd's.
The proprietor of the diner is a woman by the name of Floyd, an ex-felon and tough as adamantium nails. She made a devil's bargain with underworld figures to purchase the joint and cares about nothing but staying ahead of her "benefactors." She only hires recently released prisoners whose criminal histories keep most doors closed to them as they scramble to find jobs. Floyd knows these workers are desperate and therefore she can, and does, treat them as if they are still inmates, while she takes on the role of sadistic warden with no fear of them quitting. Who else would hire them, especially if word gets out that they couldn't even cut it at Floyd's, known to only hire the worst of the worst?
In truth, though, Floyd's crew are not the worst of the worst by any stretch. They have served time for bad choices in their past, but as they describe their situations, past and present, we realize how fragile are the safety cords that keep any of us from sliding down the same slippery slopes, and we root for them to achieve their goals of starting life anew and avoiding the many pitfalls that drop too many formerly incarcerated men and women back in prison.
The unofficial leader of the crew is Montrellous, for whom the job of making sandwiches is a path to exercise his free spirit, to create perfect combinations of ingredients that surprise and delight with every bite. He is like a Zen master to the others on the crew: Tish, a straight-talking single mother whose daughter has special medical needs; hyper-energized Rafael, who harbors a visible crush on Tish; and new arrival Jason, the only white person on the line. Numerous tattoos on Jason's arms and face identify him with hate groups, making his entry into the team a dicey affair. These three are Montrellous' acolytes, striving to meet his standards of a perfect sandwich, gastronomical nirvana between two slices of artisan-baked bread, while dodging Floyd's constant badgering and abuse.
The narrative arc built upon this inventive set-up leaves the audience with an incredible feeling of uplift as we watch four people whose luck has failed them find it in themselves to choose something more than the bottom tier of life. The crew sample one another's attempts at a perfect sandwich, especially hoping to get the sign of approval from Montrellous, whose constructive feedback is along the lines of telling Tish that the special sauce she is quite proud of "shows your impatience." Floyd, however, will never take even one bite. To her, sandwiches are slices of grubby meat between white bread, and she just needs to sell enough to pay off the loan sharks hovering around her. Her efforts to keep her crew trapped under her heel are threatened by their ambitions to make achieve something more than bare survival.
There is a lot of grit in this play, along with an enveloping warmth. However, it can't be stated strongly enough that Floyd's is a comedy with hearty laughs that fill the house, often in rapid succession. The humor is based on the characters, the ways in which they cope with their tough luck circumstances, and the importance they place upon the small things that make a difference, as when Tish criticizes Jason's slapdash approach to sandwich-making, crying out "Now you just disrespecting the lettuce!," or when Floyd eyes a batch of greens on Jason's worktable and sneers at him "What's this?" to which he replies, quite earnestly, "A garnish. Italian parsley. The truckers like it." The words are not funny in themselves, but coming from the heavily tattooed, hulking dude, it's hilarious.
Of course, delivery is everything, and Whoriskey has directed this dream team cast to draw both the humor and the heart out of every word. There is an electricity among these sandwich-makers that puts them in total synch with one another in their line delivery, and that makes them perfect allies to buffer the assaults aimed at them from Floyd. The virtuosity with which each works at their sandwich station throughout the play is near hypnotic.
Johanna Day plays Floyd, and you couldn't get a bayonet through her thick skin. She is the boss from hell, taking great pleasure in seeing her underlings squirm. John Earl Jelks is Montrellous, deeply compelling as a man who has learned through hard knocks to see past the barriers and seek out a life with meaning, a guy who is both salt of the earth and as eloquent as a laureate. Dame Jasmine Hughes is blazingly funny as Tish, who can trigger laughter with the mere pop of the letter "P" at the end of a sentence. Reza Salazar is both hilarious and deeply touching as Rafael, so excited by realizing the possibilities before him, even as they remain just beyond his reach. Completing this amazing cast, Andrew Veenstra is Jason, drawing out waves of humor from the dumb, tatted lunk we first see, then managing to persuasively show us the gentle, striving man within, desperately seeking change.
Laura Jellinek has designed a kitchen setting that not only looks but feels authentic, with specific details such as the herbs growing in pots on top of the employee lockers and well-worn, two-toned linoleum-tiled floor. The ceiling over the kitchen is low, giving a sense of the compression gathering up steam and sweat, while holding down ambitions. Every aspect of the production has been wrought with precise attention to the people whose lives are at its core.
There are some similarities between Floyd's and the work of August Wilson, especially considering Two Trains Running set in a restaurant that had once been its neighborhood's life blood. Floyd's takes us through the back door of that setting, and Nottage's dialogue rings with the same authenticity and soulfulness as Wilson's, only, in this case, much, much funnier. And rather than focusing on decline, Floyd's builds a bonfire that fans flames of hope.
Floyd's closes up the Guthrie's 2018-2019 season, and the Twin Cities theater season as a whole, as a stunning accomplishment that seems destined to reach theater audiences around the nation. What a gift to see it first here.
Floyd's, through August 31, 2019, at the Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $29.00 to $78.00. Seniors (65+) and full-time college students - $3.00 - $6.00 per ticket discount. Active Military, veterans and their immediate families, 15% discount. Public rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $20.00 - $25.00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Lynn Nottage; Director: Kate Whoriskey; Set Design: Laura Jellinek; Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design: Christopher Ackerlind; Sound Design: Justin Ellington; Original Music: Justin Hicks; Developmental Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Production Dramaturg: Morgan Holmes; Voice Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Movement Director: Leah Nelson; Stage Manager: Tree O'Halloran; Assistant Stage Manager: Katie Hawkinson; Assistant Director: Signe Harriday; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Design Assistants: Polly Bilski (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Katherine Horowitz (sound).
Cast: Johanna Day (Floyd), Dame Jasmine Hugues (Letitia), John Earl Jelks (Montrellous), Reza Salazar (Rafael), Andrew Veenstra (Jason)