Both A Raisin in the Sun, which the Renaissance Guild revived last year, and Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ reconception of Lorraine Hansberry’s play (currently in production at the Cellar Theatre), evoke African American family life in the urban North on the eve of the civil rights revolution. So, too, does the Renaissance Guild’s latest offering, Crumbs from the Table of Joy. Set in Brooklyn in 1950 and 1951, Lynn Nottage’s two-act piece, first performed in 1995, is what Tennessee Williams would call a memory play. The memories, though, are not those of the playwright, who was born in 1964. They belong to Ernestine Crump, who narrates much of what we see on stage. As played by Rebekah Williams, 17-year-old Ernestine is an endearing presence, but the device of having her and other characters tell their own stories drains the play of some of its drama.
Traumatized by the death of his wife, Godfrey Crump (Kevin Majors) abandons his native Pensacola and resettles himself and his two daughters–dutiful Ernestine and her impish 15-year-old sister Ermina (Shayla Hudson)–in a dreary Brooklyn apartment. Godfrey, who earns a meager salary in a bakery, copes with the stress of widowhood and relocation by becoming a disciple of the religious charlatan Father Divine. The household becomes a bastion of dismal piety, until the unexpected arrival of gaudy Aunt Lily, an oversized figure of gumption and panache. Played with attitude by Tori Foutz, she is a proudly independent woman who, in the midst of the Red Scare, proclaims her Communist sympathies. Lily, observes Ernestine, is “the first colored woman we’d seen dressed as a white lady.”
However, another newcomer is soon also fighting over the scant crumbs at the Crump table. Following the example of Father Divine himself, Godfrey brings home a new wife, a German refugee named Gerte (played by Cindy Castro with infectious gusto but an accent more Slavic than German). “She white!” exclaims Ermina, shocked at the sight of her new stepmother. In 1950, interracial relationships are taboo, and Gerte arouses the ire not only of local white racists but also the resentment of Ernestine and Ermina, who have been raised to mistrust white people. Rivals for control of docile Godfrey, Gerte and Lily clash.
Except for a couple of anachronisms (a Panasonic radio that could not have shown up in an American apartment in 1950 and “Secret Love,” the song popularized by Doris Day that was not written until 1953), director Charlene Duncan’s production does a fine job of evoking a distant time and place that, nevertheless, shares contemporary anxieties over race, religion and adolescence. Crumbs from the Table of Joy is the coming-of-age story of a sensitive young woman who struggles to reconcile the glamour of the movies she loves with the drabness of the life she is forced to lead.
“Such a volatile and rich period,” Nottage told an interviewer. “Yet everything I had seen was in black and white. And I wanted to make it colorful.” This engaging production of Crumbs from the Table of Joy colors the 1950s with anguish, humor and affection.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy
8pm Fri; 4pm Sun
Little Carver Civic Center
226 N Hackberry
Through April 6
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