Lynn Nottage is eating a fancy grilled cheese sandwich.
“Have you tried this?” she says, holding the Jerk, a sandwich at south Minneapolis restaurant All Square that has chicken, provolone, pineapple jam and jerk sauce. “It’s amazing.”
A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Ruined” and “Sweat”) and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Nottage is in town for Friday’s world premiere of her comedy “Floyd’s,” which contains many sandwiches. In fact, the first thing “Floyd’s” audiences will see — and smell, according to director Kate Whoriskey — is a bacon sandwich.
“Floyd’s” may be Nottage’s most audience-friendly play. The title refers to a Pennsylvania truck stop that employs formerly imprisoned people who attempt to make the perfect sandwich while getting their lives back on track. Coincidentally, the same thing happens at the new All Square, which was the beneficiary of a preview performance of “Floyd’s.”
Way back in 2014, the Guthrie Theater commissioned a new work, which turned out to be “Floyd’s,” from Nottage. Its arrival is a very big deal, considering that the last time a Nottage play premiered outside of New York, it was “Sweat,” which debuted at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and went on to Broadway, Tony Award nominations and a Pulitzer. There had been talk about the Guthrie simultaneously staging those plays, but the timing didn’t work, so the theater will do “Sweat” next summer. Still, “Floyd’s” shares with “Sweat” its setting of Reading, Pa., a character and an origins story.
“I usually write two plays at once. It’s for my brain to be in conversation with itself, the right and the left side. ‘Sweat,’ I feel, is a political play, dealing with very weighty issues, and it was emotional to write. ‘Floyd’s,’ while it still has a gravitas, is funny and lighter and it’s about food. In some ways, when I was writing ‘Sweat,’ ‘Floyd’s’ was a place I could go to for refuge,” said the warm and curious Nottage.
Johanna Day has worked with Nottage twice. A veteran of the Broadway “Sweat” who plays the title character in “Floyd’s,” Day said, “She’s such an interesting, beautiful creature to me. She seems very grounded and still. She tells great stories, and I love the way she giggles.”
As near as Nottage can remember it, her first glimmer of “Floyd’s” was the main character, a shape-shifting, mysterious restaurant owner: “I started to think of Floyd as this person that, every time you want to move forward, will remind you of your flaws.”
Contrasting Floyd is Montrellous, played by John Earl Jelks, another “Sweat” veteran.
“Lynn has written this guy who basically comes in with the idea, ‘I can’t change the past, but I can do everything in my power to make a better future,’ ” said Jelks, who sees his character as kind of a “Zen master.”
He’s also a master of hoagies. Nottage’s script conjures many flavor combinations, including peanut butter and jelly with nutmeg and cinnamon and a lobster roll with caramelized fennel.
“Montrellous is trying to teach these very frustrated young people, all of whom do not see any options in their lives, to look at what is in front of them and see something beautiful,” Nottage said. “He’s constantly saying that it’s not about the ingredients, but the way they are assembled. He says, ‘Where my hand leads may not be where your hand takes you. It’s the intangible grace of flavors and aromas that tell your story.’ ”
The characters in “Floyd’s” make so many sandwiches that Whoriskey warned the prop shop that the show would be “particularly hard” on them because of the need for a constant stream of menu items to be assembled every night on stage. The characters also talk about sandwiches a lot, but what they’re really talking about is mindfulness.
“The entire play is about using the imagination to escape your circumstances,” Nottage said.
The playwright, who has been shaping “Floyd’s” all month at the Guthrie, looks for innovation on stage, as well as in sandwiches.
“I’m not really interested in a director who is going to give me an absolute replica of what I’ve written. I want someone who will expand that vision and surprise me, give me something I can’t anticipate. There’s nothing more disappointing than to get that straightforward production that makes you think, ‘You know what? I could have done that,’ ” said Nottage. “Kate has this really strong visual sensibility, and I know she’ll take me someplace my imagination might not.”
Whoriskey says a big part of making that happen in a new work is listening: to the writer, the script, the actors. And maybe to the sizzle of bacon?
“There is something really interesting to me about a play about a sandwich,” Whoriskey said. “I’ve never seen that before.”
‘We don’t know this audience’
Both Whoriskey and Nottage are jazzed to debut “Floyd’s” in a city that is new to them.
“We don’t know this audience, so they’re not in my head or Kate’s head when she is putting it on stage. We’re just making the work we want to make,” said the playwright.
Nottage — whose other current projects include the libretto for an opera of her “Intimate Apparel” for Lincoln Center Theater next year, the book for the Broadway-bound Michael Jackson show “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and the book for the musical “The Secret Life of Bees,” which is targeted for Broadway — said racing to finish “Bees” reinforced the Zen of developing new work.
“We realized we are not going to get to exactly where we wanted to go, but we have to be content with where we are,” Nottage said. “The maturity is in understanding, as scary as this idea is, that this may not be the final iteration of the play but it is where we are at the moment.”
It’s a concept Nottage has seen in action since at least graduate school at Yale, where she worked as a dresser on the initial staging of August Wilson’s classic “The Piano Lesson.” Nottage said half of the audience left before the end of the first performance, which lasted for 4 ½ hours.
“But one luxury Wilson had was there were these regional theaters that loved him and permitted him to take a journey with his plays, to hone them and find what they wanted to say. So, by the time ‘Piano Lesson’ got to Broadway, it was in this beautiful shape,” Nottage said.
Audiences won’t be at “Floyd’s” anywhere near 4 ½ hours. It’s a lean, no-intermission show of about 95 minutes. Which means audiences may leave hungry, thinking about the show’s sandwiches. If they’re like Jelks, they may even ponder the ways assembling a delicious sandwich is not unlike putting together a great play.
“I think sandwiches are about imagination,” he said. “What chances are you going to take? What flavors are you going to go after, to defy expectations and elevate your sandwich? What can you combine to make your sandwich magical and delicious?”
In “Floyd’s,” Montrellous and his colleagues are asked to crank out basic grilled sandwiches with white bread and American cheese, but they scheme about creating the sort of snazzier fare served at All Square. Which is to say that — like Nottage, like most of us — they dream of taking the things they have and turning them into something amazing.