Excellent Early ‘Crumbs’ From Lynn Nottage

In structure and spirit, ‘Crumbs from the Table of Joy,’ now being revived for the first time in New York, has many of the elements that would distinguish her later work: a probing intelligence, a generous heart, and an unapologetic directness.

Julieta Cervantes
Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, and Shanel Bailey in ‘Crumbs from the Table of Joy.’ Julieta Cervantes

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage has drawn inspiration from subjects ranging from civil war in the Congo to tensions among Pennsylvania factory workers to the poaching of elephants in Kenya. For “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” which marked her professional debut as a playwright back in 1995, Ms. Nottage looked no further than her native Brooklyn — in geographic terms, that is.

In structure and spirit, “Crumbs,” now being revived for the first time in New York, has many of the elements that would distinguish Ms. Nottage’s later work: a probing intelligence, a generous heart, and an unapologetic directness that has made her writing as accessible as it acclaimed. That third quality, as one might expect, is especially pronounced here, and embodied in the character of a lonely, yearning teenager named Ernestine Crump.

Played with both wide-eyed resolve and an indelible sadness by the radiant young actress Shanel Bailey, Ernestine might have been informed by the stories of any number of older Black women Ms. Nottage knew or read about as a child. As the play opens in 1950, her mother has just died, and she and her father, Godfrey, and younger sister, Ermina, move to New York from the South. They feel immediately alienated from their white landlord and neighbors, and from the other children at school, who tease the girls for their “country braids and simple dresses,” as Ernestina puts it. 

Still mourning his late wife, and relegated to working the overnight shift at a downtown bakery, Godfrey seeks solace in one Father Divine, a celebrity preacher who promises salvation to those who follow his rigid strictures — and, ideally, contribute a little cash. His search and his daughters’ adjustment to city life are complicated by the arrival of two visitors: first Lily Ann, the girls’ maternal aunt, a confirmed bachelorette and dedicated Communist, then Gerthe, a white woman who has fled post-war Germany.

Costume designer Johanna Pan plays a key role in the production, dressing the characters to reflect not only their circumstances but how they choose to deal with them. Godfrey, whose fervent sense of responsibility and aching decency are captured in Jason Bowen’s endearing performance, wears a modest but smart suit that always looks neatly pressed. His daughters appear in conservative, feminine frocks that seem dutifully suited to their father’s taste — though Hermina’s more mischievous spirit shines through in Malika Samuel’s disarming, comically astute portrayal. 

Humor also figures into Ms. Nottage’s portraits of the grown female characters in this play, however plainly both have had to rise above harsh experience. Sharina Martin’s sensuous, forthright Lily Ann titillates and threatens Godfrey in her slick red heels and form-fitting dress suit, likely purchased with her last dime. Natalia Payne’s Gerthe looks every bit the crisp hausfrau, but she pines to connect with her new family and is alternately funny and poignant in her attempts to do so.

Through the fraught relationship between these two women, and other conflicts, the young Ms. Nottage pondered the roles of identity and background, and the weight of history on current events, with an even-handedness that feels, sadly, almost quaint today. Colette Robert’s sensitive direction also serves the play’s more whimsical flourishes — such as when Ernestine, a devoted cinephile, envisions her family members solving their problems as they might in a motion picture. “At least I wish…,” Ernestine sighs repeatedly, explaining that a song or dance or happy turn of events we’ve just witnessed was actually a product of her avid imagination. 

We know, even before Ernestine describes future developments in a touching epilogue, that this imagination will serve her well, just as it has Ms. Nottage. Nearly 30 years on, “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” retains all its tender charm, and Ms. Robert and her company mine it beautifully.

The New York Sun

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