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Language counts for everything in the theater. It tells you when “there’s Godso quickly,” provides the reward for “a long day’s journey,” and alerts you to characters to whom “attention must be paid.”
So you’re apt to feel a shiver of anticipation at the outset of Crumbs From the Table of Joy when Ernestine (Taïfa Harris), an African-American teenager, uses a graceful declarative sentence to introduce her newly motherless family: “Death wouldn’t leave us be, and then one day it stopped.”
That, you’ll note, is an arresting construction. There’s Southern delicacy in its initial phrase and Northern bluntness in its second, both of which turn out to be appropriate, because the family hails from Pensacola, Fla., and is in the process of resettling in Brooklyn, N.Y. Still, your ear perks up not so much because of the information being imparted as because there’s something plain-spoken, economical, and precise about the line. Attention will be paid, because you want to hear what else playwright Lynn Nottage has to say.
She’s telling a story of cultural dislocation. The year is 1950, and Ernestine’s father, Godfrey (Doug Brown), reeling from the loss of his wife, has moved north with his two daughtersthe younger is Ermina (Thembi Duncan)so they’ll have a shot in life. He’s clueless about how to bring up teenage girls alone, looking for guidance to the ministry of the messianic Father Divine, whose creed of virtue, virginity, abstinence, and racial integration strikes Godfrey as appropriate for his family.
His wife’s sister, Lily (Lynn Chavis), who shows up on their Brooklyn doorstep with all her possessions in a single suitcase, has other ideas. She’s a proud, freethinking, Communist-sympathizing Harlem sophisticate who once dated Godfrey and figures the time is right to re-enter his life. He regards her, quite naturally, as representing everything his kids should be avoiding. His daughters, just as naturally, adore her.
Especially after Godfrey impulsively marries Gerte (Jewel Orem), a gregarious German immigrant he meets on a subway and takes to one of Father Divine’s Peace Missions for a meal. Lily and the girls are appalled by the suddenand initially sexlessmarriage, which they regard as both a racial and social betrayal. Someone even asks if Gerte is a Nazi. Tensions fester, then flare, and finally erupt as Ernestine’s high school graduation approaches.
All of this takes place in a minefield of racial and gender politics, so it’s fortunate for audiences that Ernestine proves a sure-footed guide to the postwar attitudes of a half-century ago. Fiercely loyal to her father and sister, and conservative in everything from social values to taste in clothing, she’s still plenty receptive to Aunt Lily’s notions of liberation. Mind you, she tends to blend them into movie fantasies, imagining her family members as various stars. Gerte is, of course, Marlene Dietrich (which allows for a hilariously growled chorus of “Falling in Love Again” at one point), but, tellingly, Ernestine models her own behavior on such white stars as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In the fall of 1950, Lena Horne hadn’t really made enough of an impact to give her a black role model to emulate.
Nottage aims for temporal specificity in such details, and if a line or two sounds unlikelywould even a literary-minded ’50s teen have worried aloud about living in a home “sullied” by anger?she generally hits the mark. So does Scot Reese’s mostly upbeat, memory-inflected staging, though the director isn’t being done many favors by Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.’s oddly schizoid setting, with its factorylike second story atop a comparatively conventional Brooklyn apartment. I suspect the design is meant to cue us that there’s a changing, post-World War II world beyond the apartment’s walls, but Godfrey works in a bakery, so it’s hard to know what to make of such industrial details as exposed girders and grimy, boarded-up windows. They don’t distract, because your eye is rarely drawn to them, but neither do they make much sense. Martha Mountain’s lighting doesn’t sufficiently underline the movie-fantasy sequences but is otherwise fine, as are Rosemary Pardee’s costumes, with the exception of the shoes Godfrey wears in the first act: The script makes quite a point of how he puts a dazzling shine on his ancient, worn footwear, but when he turns the soles toward the audience they’re barely scuffed.
These are minor quibbles, obviously, when a play is as verbally seductive as Crumbs From the Table of Joy. “Smothered in gossamer smoke and dizzy with assertions,” is how Nottage has Ernestine describe herself after one encounter with the chain-smoking Lily, and it would take a mighty fussy listener to sweat production details when phrases like that are being bandied about. As Lorraine Hansberry famously did for another play about the African-American experience, Nottage takes her title from a line in a Langston Hughes poem. It’s a fitting homage, given language that verges on verse more often and more plausibly than one might expect.
Not that the evening had entirely jelled when I caught it at Round House’s final preview. Chavis was playing Lily’s uptown politics strictly for surface flash and sizzle and hadn’t yet made sense of the character’s conflicted feelings for her brother-in-law. For his part, Brown was making Godfrey impenetrable enough that her difficulty in relating to him seemed entirely understandable. They’ll doubtless relax as the run goes on. Orem’s decent, struggling Gerte, on the other hand, is pretty sublime, registering empathetically from the moment she appears, even though she enters the action when it’s halfway over. Duncan’s feisty, slang-spouting Ermina is goofy fun, and Harris’ Ernestine is a flat-out delight, whether teasing laughs from a description of the household’s cross-cultural meals (“bratwurst and sweet potatoes”) or ruminating on what life would be like if a child of the ’50s could give her fantasies free rein.
“In the movies, the darkness precedes everything,” she says, her eagerness lighting up the stage. “In the darkness, the theater whispers with anticipation.”
Damn straight. CP