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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

theories.

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

character.

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

done that."

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

Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-249-5560. $22.50 to $32.50. To March 29.


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