BWW Review: World Premiere of Lynn Nottage's Comedy FLOYD'S at the Guthrie
Playwright Lynn Nottage matters. Winner of a MacArthur 'genius' grant, she's also been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2019. She's the only woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama (for RUINED in 2009 and SWEAT in 2017).
If you know her work, you know that she is drawn to characters who are marginalized, fighting battles for dignity outside the milieu of most theater goers in this country: that is, the affluent and mostly white patrons of the established regional theaters and Broadway. In so doing, she honors her own identity as an African-American woman and meets one of the highest callings of theater: to offer a window into lives that we in the audience don't ordinarily see, building empathy and insight. She's a pre-eminent example of a creative artist making a contribution to cultural dialogues we need to have.
Nottage calls FLOYD'S her 'side hustle' to the Pulitzer Prize winning SWEAT. Both plays rose out of two years of interviews she did with residents of Reading, PA, one of the Rust Belt communities particularly hard hit by deindustrialization and the recession of 2008. Nottage likes to work on two scripts at once; she says it allows her to exercise both sides of her brain. An early mentor advised her to write every day. I imagine her simultaneous process with two scripts permits her to shift gears but keep writing when she's a little stuck on one of them.
FLOYD'S had its world premiere this past weekend in Minneapolis. To its credit, the Guthrie commissioned FLOYD'S after SWEAT, which was a commission of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. SWEAT is a two-act, multi-location, realistic tragedy. FLOYD'S runs 95 minutes without intermission, in one location. SWEAT is, to quote Nottage again, 'immediate, political, visceral' and FLOYD'S is 'emotional and spiritual.'
That's true. It is also a character-based comedy in the sense that it ends with liberation, rather than death. And, yes, the audience laughed out loud at various lines in the performance I saw. FLOYD'S text and staging utilize theatricality to take the quotidian and loft it into occasional transcendance, and so brings magic realism to the Contemporary Stage; specifically, to a truck stop diner.
Neat trick, right? Hats off to Nottage, who is quick to credit also her longtime collaborator, director Kate Whoriskey, who often accompanies her on research trips while an idea is forming, well before a script emerges. They went to Uganda together (researching RUINED, which traces the endurance of women surviving war where rape is weaponized) as well as to Reading.
This truck stop diner is owned by Floyd (Johanna Day), a real mean woman who "doesn't do pity" but chooses to employ ex-incarcerated people. She doesn't have an altruistic bone in her body; her motive in hiring these folks is rather that they have little recourse for other legal paid work so she can humiliate and abuse them at will. Her workers describe her as "a dominatrix with no safe words."
She has three young employee/victims: Letitia (Dame Jasmine Hughes), an African-American single mother of a daughter with disabilities; Rafael (Reza Salazar), a hyper and scruffy Latino who wears his heart on his sleeve; and Jason (Andrew Veenstra), an edgy Caucasian dude with white supremacist tattoos whose first day on the job does not go well.
Mentor to these three is Montrellous (John Earl Jelks), an older African-American master chef, who brings a kind of Zen mindfulness to the practice of cooking. He crafts individual sandwiches with intention, and encourages an imaginative game where each worker describes sandwiches they could create, with exotic ingredients carefully balanced (quail eggs! blueberry compote! cheddar biscuits!) rather than the American cheese on Wonder Bread that Floyd pushes. The word poetry in these dreamed up sandwiches send all four into paroxysms of ecstasy, sometimes accompanied by a sacred light and unearthly sound--a momentary escape from their daily tribulations.
Clearly Nottage sees imagination as a lever that can lift us out of despair. Without preaching, she invites us to contemplate the way in which the choices we all have made (not just the ex-cons amongst us) have consequences, and that our ability to choose never leaves us altogether.
All the actors bring specificity and emotional complexity to their portrayals. Day is scary and steely. Jelks is serene as he rides above it all, but vigilant and aware of the undercurrents. Hughes is hip and smart. Salazar is impulsive and scrappy. Veenstra is volatile and brooding.
Each of the three younger workers attempt to impress Montrellous with an actual new sandwich creation; he samples, and responds, not unkindly, with 'not bad' and 'interesting.' He seems to come and go at will, unlike the others who are on a strict time clock; he drops intriguing bits of wisdom in sound bites, like "overcomplication obscures the truth." Rafael says of him "Montrellous is like the Buddha if he'd been born in the 'hood." Is he a little too good to be true? Maybe. That seems especially so when we learn what put him in prison. But again, let's remember: this is play as parable; this is magic realism.
Indeed, Nottage describes the truck stop kitchen as 'purgatory' and some ingenious stage effects forward that reading. I particularly liked the way the preset--a brightly lit sandwich floating in front of a green backdrop in a tight black jewel box--opened up to the realistic set of a cramped diner kitchen, which opens up further in the final moments of the play. Credit to scenic designer Laura Jellinek.
Symbolic realism marks the costuming by Jennifer Moeller. Floyd's garb deliberately calls up the devil (tight black and red leather pants, motorcycle jacket, ripped Ts, etc) while Montrellous wears a saffron colored T shirt (like monks in Southeast Asia) and what could be Buddhist prayer beads.
Nottage appreciates collaborators who bring something new to what she has already envisioned in her head while writing. Whoriskey weaves together the work of lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and sound designer Justin Ellington with original music by Justin Hicks to boost the magical moments when time seems either to slow or to accelerate.
The Guthrie has a real commitment to community outreach, visible in certain policies (the building is open to the public all day, every day), certain spaces (the 9th floor black box is home to a changing series of short run productions by experimental and social change theater companies all season long), and certain practices. Here, that has meant lobby tables with representatives of various non-profit organizations working to combat mass incarceration and its consequences as well as to ease the transition back to the world at large for people who have spent time in prison. At the performance I saw, it meant a talkback skillfully led by Signe Harriday, the assistant director of the production, which covered far more territory than these often do. And it includes information in the program from some of these organizations, including the Center for Public Justice's recommendation that we shift our language from the loaded label "ex-convict" to "returning citizen," a hopeful term that is forward looking and expresses positive expectations. That makes sense to me, and though I haven't done so in this review, I'm going to make that change going forward in my conversation. It's a small thing, but words matter.
I hope that FLOYD'S travels from Minneapolis to lots of other theaters and eventually on to Broadway. This is smart writing about big ideas with memorable characters and intriguing visuals. Nottage says she intends it to be "fun, accessible, and irreverent." It comes very close on all three counts. It deserves a wide audience.
Photo credit: T Charles Erickson