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Theatre in Review: Crumbs from the Table of Joy (Keen Company/Theatre Row)

Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey, Natalia Payne, Jason Bowen. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

If, following the 1995 premiere of Crumbs from the Table of Joy, someone had predicted to me that Lynn Nottage would one day become a top American playwright, I would have nicely suggested they pull the other one. A drab treatment of a colorful subject, this dysfunctional family drama did little to distinguish her from a dozen other playwrights debuting that season. It wasn't until Intimate Apparel, in 2003, that Nottage would commence the unparalleled series of works that includes Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine; Ruined; By the Way, Meet Vera Stark; Sweat; Mlima's Tale; and Clyde's. Clearly, you can't judge a playwright by her earliest efforts.

As if to prove the point, Keen Company is presenting a solid revival of Crumbs that will be of interest to Nottage fans, scholars, and completists but is less likely to captivate the general theatregoer. If nothing else, it shows how the playwright's restless intelligence inevitably draws her to some of the more fascinating episodes of Black American history.

Godfrey Crump is a widower with a load of sorrow. "Death nearly crippled my father, slipping beneath the soles of his feet and taking away his ability to walk at will," notes his seventeen-year-old daughter Ernestine. Undone by grief, Godfrey has left his hometown of Pensacola, relocating with Ernestine and her younger sister Ermina to Brooklyn, where he works as a baker. Starved for hope, he becomes a devotee of Father Divine, a notably squirrely figure in the history of the Black church, who, claiming to be God Himself, preached against welfare and for chastity while amassing a tidy sum in tithes.

Godfrey's puritanical beliefs frustrate his daughters, who already feel out of place in the big city thanks to their countrified wardrobe and manners. (A particular irritant is Godfrey's insistence that listening to the radio on Sunday is ungodly, thus depriving the girls of Amos 'n' Andy.) Into this repressed, striving atmosphere comes Lily, sister to Godfrey's late wife, and a self-professed communist -- a term that here apparently means someone who drinks and runs around. She also has a bit of a past with Godfrey and is ticked off that she can't get into his bed. She moves in, anyway, serving as a constant goad to Godfrey and an object of fascination to the girls. Then Nottage deals out a wild card in the form of Gerte, a German war refugee, with whom Godfrey engages in a marriage blanc, setting her up as the female head of the household.

If you can accept this arbitrary twist -- Godfrey is apparently trying to cool his desire for Lily and imitate Father Divine, who also took a young, blonde wife -- it certainly promises some dramatic fireworks. But what follows is mostly a series of squabbles with Ernestine stepping out of the action to tell us things that Nottage should be showing. (The play is top-heavy with narration, direct address being the favorite device of lazy and/or inexperienced writers.) Ernestine also indulges in number of wish-fulfillment scenarios -- for example, imagining the prim, proper Gerte, dressed in something sparkly, vamping her way through "Falling in Love Again" -- that serve no apparent purpose.

To be sure, Crumbs from the Table of Joy is loaded with fine writing. Of Godfrey, who renames himself "Godfrey Goodness," as per his spiritual leader's instructions, Ernestine observes, "He let Divine strip away his desire and demand of him a monk's devotion. This a man who never went to church." Tough words from your daughter. Lily, explaining her checkered employment history, says, "A Negro woman with my gumption don't keep work so easily. It's one of the hazards of being an independent thinker. If I've ever had me a job for more than a few weeks, then I knew it was beneath me. You see what I'm saying?" Yes, I'm afraid we do. Gerte describes moving from the countryside to Berlin, where "I tasted tobacco and whiskey. Ya. And danced to 'insane' music as my father called it. 'Caution abandoned.' And imagine hearing the Negro voice for the first time on a recording, oh it was...brilliant." But much of the play's best passages are narrative rather than dramatic. (Ernestine's final speech, which follows the characters far into the future, is a prime example.) Having brought together a combustible collection of personalities, Nottage never quite gets them to ignite.

Colette Robert's direction is efficient without really addressing the play's weaknesses, which, in any case, may be insurmountable. And her actors know what they're doing: Shanel Bailey makes Ernestine into a poised and sensitive emcee, handling her speeches with care. Jason Bowen is touching, especially when Godfrey's hard-held beliefs are under siege. Sharina Martin throws around plenty of attitude as Lily, whose political ideas never get past the slogan level. Malika Samuel is sufficiently sassy as Ermina. The most interesting work by far comes of Natalia Payne, whose Gerte is smarter and tougher than she initially appears.

If Brendan Gonzales Boston's basement set feels stark and underfurnished, it tells you something about Godfrey's lingering sorrow and inability to function as a homemaker. Johanna Pan's period-accurate costumes help define the characters; compare the girls' homemade frocks with Lily's scarlet ensemble and Gerte's supremely sensible wardrobe. (Nikiya Mathis' wig design plays a crucial role, marking the rite-of-passage moment when Ernestine and Ermina transition from nappy to straight hair.) Anshuman Bhatia's lighting and the sound design by Broken Chord are both up to snuff.

Still, if Crumbs from the Table of Joy can be read with pleasure, it stubbornly resists coming to life onstage. It is most interesting as a marker of how far Nottage has subsequently come, making her way to the top of her profession. --David Barbour

(9 March 2023)

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