One of my favorite tidbits about the dining scene in the Twin Cities is that the bartender at Martina, Marco Zappia, has a 49-page manifesto he gives to new hirees. While playwright Lynn Nottage’s character Montrellous doesn’t dive as deeply into the history or ethics of his practice of sandwich making in the world premiere of Floyd’s, I can imagine both hold similar views regarding the mindfulness that every ingredient addition and action holds. (And if I’m mistaken, Zappia, you have my sincere apologies.)
The Guthrie commissioned Floyd’s from Nottage in 2014, when the playwright was still working on her play Sweat (which went on to win Nottage’s second Pulitzer and which you can see in the Guthrie’s 2019-2020 season). While Sweat and Floyd’s share a character and the same setting—Reading, Pennsylvania, where more than 40 percent of the population live below the poverty level—Floyd’s is a comedy about a trucker’s sandwich shop whose workforce has all been formerly incarcerated. It’s a play about life, and fittingly, its conflict is made up of the everyday problems that people, especially returning citizens, face.
In the midst of the struggle, Montrellous, played by John Earl Jelks (and by Guthrie veteran James Williams for the last four days of the run), is an unshakable “c’est la vie” guiding light to the other employees at the sandwich shop, Floyd’s. His proverbs are about sandwiches but, like all parables, about so much more. His wisdom nudges Letitia (local Dame Jasmine Hughes), Rafael (Reza Salazar), and newcomer Jason (Andrew Veenstra) to a mindset of peace not inadequacy, a path toward fighting the system, not entrapping yourself in it. Unfortunately, he’s not the boss: the razor-spitting, bleached-blond Floyd (Johanna Day) is, and she never fails to remind them that they don’t deserve goodness.
In the five-person cast are two Tony nominees, Day and Jelks, but everyone lives fully in their roles and in the world created by scenic designer Laura Jellinek. The Guthrie’s thrust stage can boast towers (I still think about the stateliness and immensity of 2019’s rotating Romeo and Juliet set), but the proscenium stage can give an immersive cross-section of life. In this case, a confining foodservice kitchen complete with all of the prep stations and hardware. It is a world as familiar as it is illuminating, like meeting the person you always see but never talk to at the bus stop.
Nottage purportedly wrote Floyd’s in companionship to Sweat as an alleviation to the latter’s serious tone, and you can see it in the script. With little scenes that bounce between choked, cathartic heart to hearts and reactions played up for the laughs, sometimes the only through-line is extreme emotion: Montrellous’ Buddhist-like attitude; Floyd’s demonic ruthlessness; the orgasmic reverence the workers have toward the sandwiches.
The play’s dialogue interposes motifs of racism and, of course, the stigma of being incarcerated, but those aren’t the most poignant parts of the play. It’s the little choices you see the characters make. You can choose to have a moment of happiness, no matter how silly; you can choose to open yourself and create the bridges that will save you later; you can choose to continue to say no to it all, for better or for worse. You might have a world trying to tear you down with its entrapping systems and environments, but you still control your own actions. You can still help others as they come to their own crossroads.
While making the perfect sandwich is a metaphor for being complete (among other things), its weight doesn’t always translate well into the day-to-day demands of a real sandwich shop. Despite that, Floyd’s conveys a sense of solidarity that urges you to not only dream for yourself but to reach out to others. Everything matters, even a simple sandwich.
Before or after you plan to see Floyd’s, make sure to stop at All Square in south Minneapolis, a grilled cheese shop that also employs people recently incarcerated and offers work, foodservice training, and professional and personal development.