Now I had a rather sheltered childhood in the suburbs of the 1960s; I have no personal frame of reference for the struggles of black Americans during the first half of the 20th century. The closest I can come is being left-handed in a right-handed world. Playwright Lynn Nottage has written some wonderful works that shine a light on life for African-Americans post Emancipation Proclamation. CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY is an early piece that had its premiere at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre in May of 1995.
Set in a 1950’s tenement in Brooklyn, New York, Nottage’s CRUMBS tells the story of a recently widowed father trying to come to grips with the loss of his wife and to make a better life for his two teenage daughters). The family’s journey from Pensacola, FL to a shabby basement apartment in Brooklyn provides entry into unfamiliar worlds of religion, communism and interracial love.
Godfrey Crump (Maurice A. Tucker) has moved his family north due to the teachings of radio evangelist Father Divine. He is working as a baker and trying to maintain a strict lifestyle for himself and his daughters. The eldest is Ernestine (Teresa Miller), a shy girl of 17 who escapes to the movies when not writing in her journal. Ernestine is our guide through the story. Fifteen year old Ermina (Jessica Ludd) is the more adventurous of the two—with a wicked sense of humor.
Not long after their arrival, Godfrey’s wife’s sister Lily (Shamika Byrd) arrives. She says it’s to help raise her nieces, but the viewer soon realizes that Lily is a loose-living freeloader. Lily likes her booze and the teachings of the Communist party. She fills the girls’ heads with a lot of ideas that are in direct opposition to Godfrey’s strict ways. In addition to the differences in the two adult’s views in how Ernestine and Ermina should be raised, there is a sexual tension as well. Godfrey disappears for several days at one point. When he returns, with a renewed dedication to Father Divine’s teachings, he also brings a German-born wife, Gerte (Sara Madden).
In some ways, you can tell this is an early work in Nottage’s canon. While she is in the familiar territory of Brooklyn, she is tackling a lot of big issues. Is it a play about coming-of-age as a black child in the 50s? Is it a treatise on how sometimes religious groups can be misleading? Or is it an examination of interracial relationships? It was hard to tell at times.
The company inhabits their roles well, with standout performances from Jessica Ludd and Shamika Byrd. First-time director Stephanie Rolland does a credible job, keeping the production moving at a reasonable pace. Transitional music would have helped the scene changes greatly, however. Mike Lucek’s lighting and Lisa Sullivan’s sound design support the production well and Rolland’s set design is serviceable. Ms. Miller (in addition to performing) also created the costumes. They are spot-on renditions of the 1950s.
CRUMBS is an interesting story—and I’m sure this company’s telling of it will find its rhythm and grow in nuance as the run progresses.
CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Stephanie Rolland
January 20-February 4, 2012
Allens Lane Center for the Arts
Allens Lane & McCallum Streets
Philadelphia, Pa 19119