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Guthrie’s ‘Floyd’s’ is sweet, biting — and very funny

ALSO: Source Song Festival; Irish Fair of Minnesota on Harriet Island; “When the Shark Bites: Hauptmann & Brecht, Lenya & Weill” at Open Eye; and more.

From left to right: Reza Salazar, John Earl Jelks, Dame Jasmine Hughes and Andrew Veenstra in the Guthrie Theater’s production of "Floyd’s."
Photo by T Charles Erickson

When is a sandwich not a sandwich? When it’s a lifeline, an act of love, an expression of creativity and imagination, and proof of one’s humanity and worth. In “Floyd’s,” the new play by two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage having its world premiere at the Guthrie, a sandwich is a lovesome thing.

It’s a sweet play, with a biting, acerbic, rapid-fire and very funny script. Nottage has said she didn’t know “Floyd’s” would be a comedy until she started writing it. The humor surprised her, and it may surprise you. What’s so funny about formerly incarcerated people making sandwiches in a truck-stop diner? Especially when a misstep could send any of them right back to prison. The Floyd of the title, their hope-quenching boss, would be glad to see that happen. She thinks that’s where they belong. To her, they’re a batch of nobodies.

The Guthrie commissioned “Floyd’s” in 2014, during Joe Dowling’s tenure. That was seven years after Nottage won her MacArthur genius grant, five years after her first Pulitzer, for “Ruined,” and three years before her second, for “Sweat.” At the time, it was thought the new play would be performed in 2015. It was worth the wait. “Floyd’s” is a joy that will make you laugh and feel. It may also give you some insight into what it’s like to transition back into the world after being locked up.

When you first enter the Guthrie’s proscenium theater, you see a sandwich floating in a box framed in black. As the play begins, the box widens into Laura Jellinek’s set, a full kitchen with stainless steel appliances, linoleum floors, tile walls, a pick-up counter (with a bell), a walk-in cooler, and the ability to belch steam and fire. The set is wider than it is tall, like a long box. It feels confined.

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Everyone in the play is just trying to stay out of trouble, stay free, and do the best they can. Letitia (Dame Jasmine Hughes) is a single mother of a daughter with ongoing medical needs, the reason she ended up in prison. Rafael (Reza Salazar) is an overcharged Latino who once tried to rob a bank. He has eyes for Letitia. Jason (Andrew Veenstra), the newest member of the kitchen crew, is a Caucasian dude determined to keep his temper in check. While in prison, he covered himself in white supremacist tattoos. He regrets that now.

Montrellous (John Earl Jelks) is the calm at the center of the storm and touchiness of the other three characters. Like a Zen master, he shares his wisdom in small bits. He’s a sandwich-making artist and a teacher of mindfulness. His prison time was a sacrificial act.

It’s the swirl of conversations and interactions among these four, their attempts at getting along as they’re getting to know themselves as people who are no longer incarcerated, that form the heart of the play. Floyd (Johanna Day) bursts in when she’s least expected, spreading fear and mayhem. “She mean and cray-cray,” Letitia says. Of all the characters in the play, Floyd seems most stuck and least redeemable, and she’s in charge.

Kudos to the cast, director Kate Whoriskey, the aforementioned scenic designer Laura Jellinek, costume designer Jennifer Moeller, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, sound designer Justin Ellington and everyone else who brought Nottage’s latest jewel to life on the stage. Wherever it goes next, we saw it first. What a privilege.

“Floyd’s” continues through Aug. 31. It’s 95 minutes, with no intermission, leaving time to grab a sandwich after. You’ll want one. The descriptions of sandwiches the characters invent, in an ongoing verbal competition, will make you hungry. FMI and tickets ($29-78).  In a graceful balancing act, the Guthrie will end its 2019-20 season with Nottage’s “Sweat.” So we have that to look forward to.

The picks

Tonight (Wednesday, Aug. 7) at Westminster Hall: Source Song Festival: “Walt Whitman in Song.” A piano-and-voice recital celebrating the bicentennial of America’s world poet, co-curated by tenor Paul Sperry and Ed Folsom of the Walt Whitman Archive. The performers will be teams from this year’s MNDuo program. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15-30).

A scene from George Nierenberg’s 1982 documentary “Say Amen, Somebody.”
Photo courtesy United Artists Classics/Photofest
A scene from George Nierenberg’s 1982 documentary “Say Amen, Somebody.”
Tonight through Friday at the Walker: “Say Amen, Somebody.” Unseen in theaters for decades, George Nierenberg’s 1982 documentary features Thomas A. Dorsey, the Father of Gospel (“Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, and performances by the Barrett Sisters and the O’Neal Twins. David Denby wrote for New York magazine, “The music conquers doubt and unhappiness, and when it ends, you feel healed.” We could all use some of that. Newly restored and screening as part of the Walker’s Lost Films & Restorations series. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10/8).

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Thursday at the Milkweed building on East Lake: Dave Shove Midstream Reading Series. With poet Maryann Corbett, winner of the Richard Wilbur Award for “Mid Evil”; James Silas Rogers, whose “Northern Orchards: Places Near the Dead” was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award; Erin Sharkey, co-founder with Junauda Petrus of Free Black Dirt; and Michael Torres, who just yesterday was named a winner of the 2019 National Poetry Series. His next book, “An Incomplete List of Names,” will be published by Beacon Press. 3820 East Lake. 7:30-8:30 p.m. Arrive 10-20 minutes early to get coffee from Milkweed downstairs and a seat. Free.

When the Shark Bites: Hauptmann & Brecht, Lenya & Weill
Photo by Dan Norman
From left to right: Dan Chouinard, Diana Grasselli, Prudence Johnson, and Bradley Greenwald in “When the Shark Bites: Hauptmann & Brecht, Lenya & Weill” at the Open Eye.
Opens Thursday at the Open Eye: “When the Shark Bites: Hauptmann & Brecht, Lenya & Weill.” In 2013, performing artists Dan Chouinard, Diana Grasselli, Bradley Greenwald and Prudence Johnson formed Chronofon, an excuse for creating theatrical concerts like last season’s smash hit “Dear Lenny: Bernstein’s Life in Songs & Letters.” Their latest features music by Kurt Weill, Bertold Brecht, their largely uncredited co-writer, Elisabeth Hauptmann, and Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya. Come for the music, leave knowing more about the artists, their influence on theater, music and modern culture, and their time and place: Berlin during the Weimar Republic. FMI and tickets ($28). The performance on Saturday, Aug. 10, includes a pre-show picnic and post-show sing-along in the Open Eye’s Biergarten ($65).

Friday through Sunday at Harriet Island Park: Irish Fair of Minnesota. Now in its 40th year, the largest free Irish fair in the U.S. is three family-friendly days of dancing, singing, eating, drinking, and nonstop entertainment. Stories will be told, poems will be read, tea will be poured, sheep will be herded by sheepdogs, and Finnegan’s will serve a special stout. One of the bands performing this year (and there are many) is the award-winning We Banjo 3, a Galway- and Nashville-based quartet whose players have collectively won more than a dozen All Ireland titles and whose last studio recording spent three weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass chart. As they tour, We Banjo 3 raises money and awareness for Mental Health America. 3-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. FMI. Free.