Corrections or additions?
Crumbs from the Table of Joy
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
March 18, 1998. All rights reserved.
At the beginning of Lynn Nottage’s sweetly envisioned
memory play "Crumbs from the Table of Joy," (a title taken
from the Langston Hughes poem, "Luck"), Godfrey Crump is devastated
by the sudden death of his wife from eating spoiled potato salad at
a picnic. Finding consolation and an unexpected uplift from the radio
sermons and correspondence from Father Divine’s Peace Mission movement,
the heretofore non-religious man packs and leaves his Florida home
and heads for Brooklyn. Taking with him his two teenaged daughters,
15-year-old Ermina and 17-year-old Ernestine, and his newfound faith,
Godfrey settles into a small apartment and a menial job in a bakery.
It isn’t an arbitrary dramatic device that makes Nottage set the time
of her play in 1950. George C. Baker, a.k.a. Father Divine is at the
peak of his theological movement based upon a combination of African
American folk religion, Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and New Thought
— the precursor to New Age spirituality. The fact that Father
Divine’s followers, a startling integration of races for its time,
think of him as God is a fact, and one that give "Crumbs from
the Table of Joy" its most curious dramatic direction.
Unsettled and approaching adulthood, Ermina and Ernestine forge a
sisterly alliance, but nevertheless have a difficult time adjusting
to their father’s restrictive religiosity. If getting used to their
father’s new name — Godfrey Goodness — isn’t difficult enough
for them, they are not pleased to find out that they themselves are
to be called Darling Angel and Miss Devout Mary. One of the play’s
funnier scenes has the sisters making sport of their spiritual renaming.
This sets off the secretly rebellious tone of their never disrespectful
relationship with their father.
However, Ernestine and Ermina’s response to their father, newly committed
to living a chaste life, is nothing compared with their reaction to
their hard-drinking and fast-living Aunt Lilly, an out-of-work entomologist
and an out-spoken Communist with designs on Godfrey. Lily is a force
to reckon with, and the playwright Nottage has invented a character
as tumultuous as she is unwittingly touching. "I’ve been to Harlem,
but this is the Promised Land," says this scarlet lady who has
apparently come to stay. And stay she does, teaching the girls how
to mambo as well as filling their heads with her activist political
As if things aren’t complicated enough, since the whole neighborhood
and the high school faculty begins to think everyone in the family
is a Communist, the sisters have to deal with their father’s sudden
and unexpected marriage to Gerte, a white woman, a German, and a blonde
no less. "You’re the first German I’ve seen that wasn’t in the
newsreel," Godfrey tells this attractive but lost and hungry immigrant
he first meets on a subway. But I’m rushing you through a full year’s
chronicle, as spiritedly narrated by Ernestine, the play’s point-of-view
The play seems to take its concerns directly from the courageous and
concerned heart of Ernestine, as she guardedly approaches her high
school graduation day. But what Ernestine is most unguardedly prone
to are the little twists and spins on reality that her memory takes.
Through the magic of set designer Peter B. Harrison’s abstracted and
projection-enhanced setting and the artful lighting design by Victor
En Yu Tan, the play’s excellent director Shirley Jo Finney cleverly
devises these leaps from the actual into the wishful.
Ernestine’s need to fancifully embroider her memories,
many of which are motivated by her love for romantic movies, are wittily
reconsidered. Attending a banquet with her husband and stepdaughters
to honor Father Divine, Gerte is overcome by the lavish spread set
before them. She crawls upon the table and over the platters of food.
Suddenly, she stands upon the long table and, without a second thought,
strips off her plain dress to reveal a glittering white slip. Grabbing
a white feather boa from out of the blue, she bursts into a chorus
of "Falling in Love Again." As Ernestine sees it, "dreams
in the Milky Way are just as curdling," all the joys of a child’s
unrestricted imagination are easily explained by her simple post-fantasy
acknowledgment: "I wish I’d said that" or "I wish they’d
Michele Mordica is charming as the memory-sharing Ernestine who learns
as much about life from Lily as she learns about love from Gerte.
Aisha Henderson is delightful as the pig-tailed Ermina, who goes from
demure to demonstrative when she discovers boys. Anthony Chisholm
is to be lauded for providing the paradoxically passionate and pious
Godfrey with an always amusing balance of humor and hubris. But it
might just be the extraordinarily lovely performance by Dee Pelletier,
as the resented and underappreciated Gerte, who becomes the play’s
most memorable and wise character with her advice to the sisters,
"Find your own road to the truth."
Like many a memory play, "Crumbs from the Table of Joy" is
in turn wistful, self-serving, meandering, and murky. But this one
is also personable and memorable. Nottage, whose last play "Mud,
River, Stone" was produced this season by Playwrights Horizons,
is a playwright to keep your eye on. Don’t miss this chance.
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-249-5560. $22.50 to $32.50. To March 29.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.