‘Crumbs From the Table of Joy’ Keen Company’s Revival of Lynn Nottage is a Must-See
From the excellent selection of music that fills the auditorium before Crumbs From the Table of Joy begins, to Ernestine Crump’s (Shanel Bailey) summation of the future after the roiling events with her family subsides, the Keen Company’s fine revival of Nottage’s play endears us. The playwright’s simplicity focuses on the hardships and relationship dynamics of a single father and two teenage daughters migrating from the Jim Crow South to a Brooklyn recovering from the vagaries of WW II. Directed by Colette Robert, the heartfelt, lyrical production runs with one intermission at Theatre Row until April 1. It is a must-see for its superb performances and incisive, sensitive and coherent direction.
Ernestine is our guide through the year-long experiences negotiating her mom’s death and the family trials without their beloved mother to seamlessly make their lives easier. Their mom is intensely missed by all, especially Godfrey Crump (Jason Bowen) who yearns for companionship and tries to suppress his grief by joining up with Father Divine’s Peace Mission fellowship. Ernestine’s poetic recollections of the grieving time and the year of transformation, reveal a witty, talented raconteur. Wise beyond her years, she makes the audience her confidante to reveal the frightening, unfamiliar city and “romantic Parisian apartment” which sister Ermina (Malika Samuel) calls ugly. Occasionally, she calls up in her imagination scenes as she’d like her life to be, which the actors show with humorous results. Then the unfortunate reality encroaches, and what she wishes dissolves to what is.
The family are fishes out of water in an alien environment that never seems welcoming. The Brooklyn schools put Ermina in a lower grade. The students ridicule their country braids and home made dresses sewn with love. Generally they are treated with disdain and indifference. Surrounded by Jewish neighbors who remain aloof in their whiteness, they dp become friendly with upstairs neighbors who ask them to be their Shabbos goys.
They envy the elderly Levys, who seem joyful and full of laughter as they listen to radio and watch their TV programs. On the other hand Godfrey denies Ernestine and Ermina any entertainments on Sundays. Godfrey is an adherent of Father Divine’s principles which require sobriety and living abstemiously with few pleasures except Father Divine’s holy word. Thus, Ernestine’s misery is acute. but she overcomes her upset through humor and irony. Nottage bonds us to her heroine because of her alertly sage descriptions and authenticity, which never devolves into self pity. To support her dad and sister whom she loves, she keeps her own counsel and studies hard to finish high school. A senior she becomes engrossed with making her graduation dress by hand, working her seamstress skills. Hers will be the celebration of the first family member to receive a diploma.
While Ernestine applies herself in school, Ermina, who is 15-years old, fights her way into the social set and eventually becomes interested in boys. To establish that she won’t take sass from anyone, Ermina has her first successful fight and brings home the spoils of war in her pockets: a handful of greasy relaxed hair and a piece of grey cashmere sweater.
For his part their dad weeps, works nights at his job at the bakery, and loyally follows Father Divine. He counts on the minister to help him heal from the agonizing loss of his wife. Ernestine tells us that Father Divine has so enamored Godfrey that to be closer to him, he moved them to New York where he mistakenly thinks Father Divine lives because of a return address on the newsletter he receives as a subscriber. Their dad believes Divine’s “wisdom” is from God and he adheres to Divine’s principles to live cleanly, without alcohol or dancing or drugs, and be as devoted as a monk with celibacy as a badge of honor. Ernestine quips that this behavior is embraced by Godfrey, who never went to church or tipped his hat to a lady before they moved to Brooklyn. As for the other behaviors she doesn’t mention, we assume he did them all before their mother died.
Their home life revolves around Father Divine as their father attempts to become more spiritual and understand as much as possible under Divine’s tutelage which he seeks as he writes letters to him asking God’s advice to traverse this rough time in a bigoted environment of white people. That it was worse in the South doesn’t quite register and Nottage doesn’t make it a point. What she does indicate is that Godfrey doesn’t note the differences. For her part Ernestine appreciates that she is able to sit between two white girls touching shoulders in a movie theater, where this is not possible in a Jim Crow South which we infer from her excitement and enthusiasm. Also, she and Ermina like their nice neighbors upstairs who give them quarters for turning on the lights and the TV which they sometimes get to watch. However, to Godfrey, “white people” are a universal stereotype to be avoided and mumbled about.
Ironically, Ernestine points out his hypocrisy about selective criticism. He accepts Father Divine’s choice of a white wife to be another perfection of Godliness. Ernestine, who distrusts Father Divine, points out the difference between the God-like, elite Divine’s privilege to have a white wife, yet criticize white people to his Black followers. Meanwhile, her dad is just a poor Black man who sucks up a few crumbs from under the table of his life, which appears a drudgery especially with no woman at his side.
Enter Lily Ann Green (Sharina Martin) their mom’s deceased sister, who blows in unannounced, with values contrary to Father Divine/Godfrey and behaviors which upset Godfrey and put him on edge. Ernestine is thrilled she is there, even though Lily crashes with them, is completely self-absorbed and pushes her communistic beliefs wherever she goes,which is why she can’t hold a job. Interestingly, Nottage floats the two disparate philosophies which were to bring salvation to the Black society in America in the 1950s as sold and marketed by both: religion and the communist party.
Both preachers and communist leaders embraced the African American cause and, at their most egregious, exploited it for their own use. When Ernestine uses communist ideas in an essay that she hears Lily spout (this was during Senator Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare) her teacher is in an uproar. Likewise, Lily Ann ends up compromising Godfrey’s situation at work. Ernestine is forced to apologize as is Godfrey, who argues with Lily about not pushing communism vociferously to his daughters and others. He believes she is only making trouble. Though Lily Ann is interested in Godfrey and makes a play for him, he rejects her because he doesn’t agree with her politics and she dislikes Father Divine.
When the circumstances between them explode, Godfrey takes off a few from the family in frustration. During this respite, he meets Gerte Schulte (Natalia Payne) who emigrated from Germany after the war. Like Godfrey she is desperate for companionship and looking for someone to take care of her. Godfrey opens his heart and shares his circumstances. When he discusses Father Divine, she is receptive and together they seem to meld because of Gerte’s flexibility and charm. She is the antithesis of Lily Ann’s loose lifestyle, political determinism and stubbornness in having the upper hand with men.
Where Lily Ann is a catalyst and mentor for Ernestine and Ermina, Gerte becomes the catalyst to change their lives and split them apart. Nottage leaps her play’s action quickly forward when Godfrey brings Gerte home to introduce her to his daughters and Lily Ann. With her seductive, sweet charms, Gerte ingratiates herself into Godfrey’s life, moving herself from girlfriend to wife in a matter of a few days. The siblings are shocked as is Lily Ann. Godfrey expects all of them to live together and accept Gerte as his new wife. The results are not only humorous, they are necessary for Ernestine’s and Godfrey’s growth, as well as Lily Ann’s movement away from the dream of settling down with her sister’s husband.
As Ernestine Crump, Shanel Bailey is a phenomenon. Her narration is on-point, sensitive, nuanced and heartbreaking, especially at the end when she discusses what happens to each of the family members. Mindful of the narrative’s lovely poetic phrases, Bailey travels forward in character portraying Ernestine’s feelings in active dialogue with her dad, Lily Ann and Gerte, then seamlessly transfers to narrating her ironic perspective of them with grace. Bailey is winning and the production which hinges on her broad acting talents is strengthened with her brilliance of authenticity.
Though all of the ensemble shines, held together through Robert’s fine direction, another standout is Natalia Payne’s Gerte. Her accent is near perfect as a a German swanning through English. Payne makes Gerte likeable in her color blindness and utter humanity, as she forges a path for herself after the war. Though Nottage doesn’t fill in much of her backstory, we see she is a charming operator with resilience and an ability to read and understand situations, a survivalist. She and Godfrey end up with each other as a mutual benefit and by the end of the play, they move toward the intimacy and companionship they seek and need.
Malika Samuel’s Ermina is a breath of joyful fresh air. Her role is an addendum. It is a shame that she doesn’t have more dialogue for her funny, bright personality is winsome and the relationship Samuel and Bailey effect together rings with authenticity.
Nottage’s mouthpiece for her ideas, Lily Ann, is the most difficult of the characters to like because underneath her rhetoric, she is the most evasive. Though we attempt to infer the subtext of her character, Nottage doesn’t give us much to go on past what she stands for and says she believes in. However, her actions speak louder than her words and when Ernestine attempts to find the Harlem location of the communist party, the address that Lily Ann gives her doesn’t ring true. As Lily Ann, Sharina Martin is tough, manipulative, seductive and open-hearted with the sisters. She also layers Lily Ann’s personality so that we are wary that she is fronting and not delivering the truth to the family as she should be.
Jason Bowen’s Godfrey is spot-on believable and inhabits the role of the father desperate for answers in a world whose corrupt values make no sense except to be an incalculable frustration. His faith in Father Divine is believable to the point where we want Divine to be real. If he is duping Godfrey, who is vulnerable and heartbroken, it is a bitter and enraging Black on Black exploitation, skirting criminality. Because we empathize with Bowen’s Godfrey, we want the best for him. As Ernestine does we question his weak desperation falling for Gerte and marrying her so quickly. However, both are so needy. In the last scene Ernestine notes that Godfrey’s celibacy ends when Gerte and he make up after fighting. Bowen and Natalia Payne convey a roller coaster of emotions in their last scene together.
Kudos to the Keen Company’s creative team who bring together Colette Robert’s vision of the other 1950s America and how to prosper in spite of it. Creatives include Brendan Gonzales Boston’s spare, functional period scenic design, Johanna Pan’s costume design, Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting design, Broken Chord’s sound design and Nikiya Mathis’ wig design.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy continues until April 1 at Theatre Row. For tickets go to their website: https://www.keencompany.org/crumbsfromthetableofjoy