By David Walters
Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy
Sometimes a bone
To some people
Love is given,
Lynn Nottage’s play, Crumbs from the Table of Joy is remounted for the first time since its premiere in 1995. This was Ms. Nottage’s first commission and commercial production.
It does not compare to her subsequent work but does have seeds within it of plays yet to come. “I wanted to write an allegory about integration and the way the Great Migration of Black Southerners was reshaping the cultural landscape of Northern cities,” Ms. Nottage writes.
Crumbs is a family memory play, not a memoir play, but could also be called a riff play. It takes place in Brooklyn in the 1950s narrated by the oldest daughter Ernestine (Shanel Bailey splendidly carrying the production on her young shoulders). She is smitten with the movies and in her telling conjures up several movie-worthy scenes of past events that are only her wishes and not anything that actually happened. These scenes, though entertaining (wonderful rendition of Falling in Love Again by Natalia Payne), illustrate Ernestine’s wishes that her life had been different, but become blind alleys that the audience must come back from.
After her mother passed, “Death nearly crippled my father, slipping beneath the soles of his feet and taking away his ability to walk at will,” says Ernestine. An elixir that cured him with a bottling address of Brooklyn, NY was the impetus to move the family (father and two daughters, Ernestine and delightfully precocious Emina) from Pensacola up north to Brooklyn. Finding a basement apartment on a mostly white block, Godfrey Crumb finds work in a bakery to support the family. His sister-in-law, Lily, a communist and party girl, moves in using a veiled promise to take care of the girls after their mother’s passing as an excuse to stay. Godfrey has become a staunch conservative Christian (“Only white folks laugh on Sunday”) and devotee of the self-anointed Father Devine. Lily’s sexuality and desire to put herself in her sister’s marriage bed threatens Godfrey and he journeys to a Father Devine gathering where on his travels he meets a young German woman who just arrived in the states. On his return home he closes act one with the surprise, “We met. We fell in love. We married.”
The second act is Ernestine’s adjustments to her new home situation and the hope and pushing-through she finds within herself in order to graduate from high school and eventually go out on her own. This is symbolized in the beautiful graduation dress she is making for herself throughout the act. Her summations about her story at the end of the play is some of the best writing in the piece. Ernestine’s reflection on her life growing up ends with hope for where she is taking herself, “But today, I’m just riffing and walking as far as these feet will take me.”
Director Colette Robert approached the play singularly as memory choosing to put the set in a picture frame fully surrounding the proscenium making it something from the past to reflect into. This put a bit of a burden on the audience to reach into the frame and pull out meaning from the tableau, as well as making it harder for the actors to break through that frame to touch the audience.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Colette Robert. Presented by Keen Company.
The cast includes: Shanel Bailey, Jason Bowen, Sharina Martin, Natalia Payne, and Malika Samuel.
The creative team for Crumbs from the Table of Joy includes Brendan Gonzales Boston (scenic design) Johanna Pan (costume design)(the dress looked lovely on Ernestine), Anshuman Bhatia (lighting design), Broken Chord (sound design), Nikiya Mathis (wig design)(wonderful job as the wigs were key to the story), Caitlyn Murphy (prop design).
Approximately two hours with one intermission.
The production is scheduled to run through April 1 at Theatre Row in Theatre Five, located at 410 W 42nd St in Manhattan. Tickets are currently on sale at www.keencompany.org.
As always, this is just one person’s opinion in a world filled with them.