Director Colette Robert has given Lynn Nottage’s first play, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, which debuted in 1995, a lovely revival for Keen Company. This low-key coming-of-age story resembles such modern classics about girls growing up as Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, here the story of a single parent African American family. The five member cast is excellent and Brendan Gonzales Boston’s minimalist apartment setting follows Nottage’s description to the letter. While the play leaves some loose ends, it also includes themes and items that will reappear in her later, better known plays.
A memory play narrated by 17-year-old Ernestine Crump, an African American high school senior who finds herself relocated to Brooklyn from Pensacola, Florida, with her father Godfrey and her 15-year-old sister Ermina, takes place during the school year 1950-51. After the untimely death of his wife Sandra, Godfrey had gone to pieces until he came under the spell of evangelical spiritual leader Father Divine. Discovering that Father Divine’s Peace Movement was registered in Brooklyn, he decides to move his family up North to get himself sober. To his daughters’ regret he moves them to a basement apartment in a neighborhood where they are the only Black family on the block and they find themselves ostracized.
Godfrey’s new religious beliefs do not allow his children to play the radio on Sundays, and although they cannot afford a television set, he won’t let them take up the offer to watch at the home of their white upstairs neighbors. Things perk up for Ernestine and her sister when their mother’s sister, the free living, down-on-her-luck Lily Ann Green, who has supposedly been living in Harlem, shows up and moves in. She claims she promised her mother in Florida to look after her nieces, it not being “proper that a man be living alone with his daughters once they sprung bosom.”
Lily is a professed Communist who wants to see a Black Revolution and her drinking, smoking and dancing are at odds with Godfrey’s new religious beliefs. However, she can’t seem to hold a job – either as they are not good enough for her or she proves to be unreliable or too critical, we never know for sure. Ernestine demurely works on her dress for graduation while her sister worries about not being allowed near the boys by her father. On the way to a religious meeting in the Bronx, Godfrey meets and marries a white woman as his second wife, just like Father Divine, although Gerte proves to be a German refugee which makes it worse for his daughters and sister-in-law Lily, it being so soon after the end of W.W. II. Nothing is ever quite the same again.
Although the play doesn’t allow Ernestine to change a great deal, Shanel Bailey is quite sympathetic and endearing as the teenager who reports to us as to the state of the family in Brooklyn. Malika Samuel is a dramatic foil as her younger sister who is more rebellious and willing to take risks. As their reformed father once a hell raiser, Jason Bowen shows flashes of his previous personality. Sharina Martin injects a good deal of liveliness as the goodtime girl Lily who is also much more socially aware than her brother-in-law and his children. Natalia Payne does well by the thankless role of the German wife who has not quite won over her husband.
Boston’s minimal apartment setting suggests both a family with little money and who have just moved in and have not finished furnishing. The attractive 1950’s costumes by Johanna Pan define the various characters from the always neatly dressed father to the dress for success aunt to the homespun dresses made by their late mother for her daughters. The intermittent music on the radio quickly turned off and sounds like the neighboring television sets are credited to Broken Chord. The lighting by Anshuman Bhatia is suitable but not particularly atmospheric for the play’s 12 scenes covering from fall 1950 to summer 1951.
While this first New York revival of Crumbs from the Table of Joy does not reach the heights of Nottage’s later Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, Ruined and Sweat, it proves to be a very charming and competent look at growing up Black in Brooklyn during the McCarthy Era. Under the direction of Colette Robert, the fine cast holds our interest with this domestic comedy drama. Always engrossing, the play demonstrates Nottage’s ability to write about race, social change and economic deprivation in an engaging manner. Nottage proves to have been a very accomplished playwright from the outset of her career.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy (through April 1, 2023)
Theatre Five at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.keencompany.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission