By: Samuel L. Leiter
March 9, 2023: In recent years, Lynn Nottage, with a Tony nomination (MJ)and two Pulitzer Prizes (Sweat, Ruined), has soared into the stratosphere of American playwriting, much—but not all—of her work focusing on African American concerns. So an opportunity to revisit one of her earlier works, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, which premiered at Off Broadway’s Second Stage in 1995, and is now being revived by Off Broadway’s Keen Company at Theatre Row, is a welcome one, if only to see how far her work has come since then. Numerous moments glow with Ms. Nottage’s talent, but, overall, the play (and production) is patchy, the work of a young writer feeling her artistic oats, even if they haven’t entirely been digested.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy, acceptably directed by Colette Robert, takes place in a basement apartment in Brooklyn, near the Nostrand Avenue A-train station, to which the Crump family has recently moved from Pensacola, Fla. Godfrey Crump (Jason Bowen), whose wife, Sandra, has died, has come North with his daughters, 17-year-old Ernestine (Shanel Bailey), and 15-year-old Ermina (Malika Samuel). Broken by his loss, he’s found solace in the teachings of the Harlem-based, charismatic Black spiritual leader known as Father Divine.
The Crumps’ story is presented through the coming-of-age memories of Ernestine, who frequently breaks the fourth wall to deliver commentary to the audience, even coming forth at the end to inform us of what happened in later years.
Godfrey, a nattily dressed baker—always carrying cookies for his loved ones—proud of an old pair of well-buffed shoes, is obsessed with Father Divine’s rigid dictates; he has given up alcohol and doesn’t allow his girls to listen to the radio on Sunday; they make do listening to the neighbors’ music seeping through the thin walls (sound design by Broken Chord). When advised to do so in a message from Father Divine, Godfrey renames Ernestine Darling Angel and Ermina Devout Mary, monikers they’re not too thrilled to receive. Hoping to one day address “Sweet Father” in person, he’s fixated on filling one notebook after another with questions for him, even though—in what seems an odd contradiction—he’s barely able to read.
Into this somewhat strained situation suddenly arrives the late Sandra’s flashy sister, Lily Ann Green (Sharina Martin), dressed in high heels, and a two-piece red suit of tight skirt and jacket over a white blouse (the fine period costumes are by Johanna Pan). Lily, who happens to be an active communist, and who prefers multiple men in her life to the monogamy of marriage, moves in with the Crumps. Her independent mindset proves a powerful influence on her nieces, especially Ernestine, and a strong temptation for the resistant Godfrey. Her political beliefs expose the insecurities surrounding one of the era’s most sensitive subjects, one that makes Godfrey very nervous when Ernestine is reprimanded by a teacher for writing a paper called “The Colored Worker in the United States.”
Crumbs from the Table of Joy explores the world of people within the matrix of postwar racial and political concerns, especially those affecting African Americans moving to New York from rural Southern environments, where their limited freedoms confront life in the Big Apple. Ernestine, for example, is excited to find herself seated between two white girls in a Brooklyn movie theatre.
Ernestine’s high school graduation, in preparation for which she uses a dressmaker’s dummy to make her own white dress, is a big event because she’s the first family member ever to achieve this milestone. But for all his pride, Godfrey’s narrow vision of her future remains stuck in a narrow-minded past.
The Crumps live in a building occupied by Jews, with whom they have little to do other than serve as one family’s Sabbath gentiles, turning on lights on Friday nights. But, in one of the most implausible developments, Godfrey, riding the subway on his way to Father Divine’s “Peace Mission” in Harlem, meets Gerte Schulte (Natalia Payne), a white, German woman, takes her with him, and comes home after having married her. Some see the revelation of this news as a dramatic bombshell; I thought it a dud that failed to explode.
The abrupt introduction of a German refugee, one who says she came to love Black people because of their music, and who has had seriously hard times herself, into the family ménage, is another way Godfrey wishes to emulate Father Divine, himself married to a white woman; in fact, like Father Divine and his wife, Godfrey and Gerte have a sexless marriage. Hard as it is to accept, her presence offers excellent possibilities for dramatic conflict when Gerte and Lily, with her bias against white folks, inevitably clash. Gerte and Godfrey’s interracial relationship also incites violence at a Brooklyn movie theatre.
The contradiction between Godfrey’s ability to write but not read is one of several obvious bumps in the play’s journey. Another happens when Lily, soon after her arrival, accepts an offer of food from Ernestine, then takes one bite and a sip of soda before neglecting the food entirely. In the script, Ms. Nottage makes it much clearer just how hungry Lily is. Then there’s Mr. Boston’s bland, mostly blank (except for a portrait of Father Divine) set, far too tall and expansive for a basement apartment.
Ernestine’s frequent asides, assisted by spotlighting her as the surrounding lights are dimmed, could be more sharply delineated by Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting, as well as by a more distinctive tonal shift in Ms. Bailey’s performance. And the playwright’s reliance on the clichéd device of having characters behave in surprising ways (like Gerte transforming into Marlene Dietrich for a rendition of “Falling in Love Again”) only for them to be revealed as imaginary expressions of what Ernestine—who longs for life to mirror the movies—would like to have been the case, is overused.
There’s much to admire in the performances, especially those of the adult characters. Mr. Bowen, despite the inconsistencies in his role, makes Godfrey a nervously insecure yet firmly determined father and husband. Ms. Martin brings attitude, worldly wisdom, and sex appeal to the brassy but troubled Lily. And Ms. Payne, playing the unlikeliest character of all, manages to make Grete real, using her rich vocal quality and authentic-sounding dialect (her bio says she speaks Ukrainian and French) to bring the role to life. As Ernestine and Ermina, Mses. Bailey and Samuel do well enough despite having to play characters younger than the actresses themselves.
There are more than crumbs to appreciate from this play’s table of joy, with its rich dialogue, heartfelt characters, socially conscious themes, period atmosphere, and quality acting. It stumbles here and there, isn’t always convincing, and could use a more imaginative physical representation, but it’s still a Lynn Nottage play, and for that alone is worth a visit.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through April 1, 2023
Photography: Julieta Cervantes