Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Michael Brosilow.
Like Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s 1995 family drama Crumbs From the Table of Joy is a memory play reflected through the mind of the oldest child of a very flawed, controlling single parent. In this case, the flawed parent is Godfrey Crump (Terence Sims), a man who has (as the play begins) recently lost the love of his life. Crump’s first lines in the play are pathetic, powerful wailing, and he isn’t far from those overwhelming emotions for the whole first half of the play, in which he becomes a follower of Father Divine, whom he perceives as God, and uproots his daughters Ernestine (Chanell Bell) and Ermina (Brandi Jiminez Lee) from the south to Brooklyn.
The play’s narrator is 17-year-old Ernestine (whom Father Divine later renames Darling Angel). She’s a high school senior who, unlike her social butterfly fifteen-year-old sister, pretty much keeps to herself. He greatest escape is to go to movies, where she is awed by the great dramatic tales featuring actresses like Joan Crawford that manage to resolve themselves in two hours. Her own life offers no such neat resolutions. She lives in her imagination, even joyfully playing out alternative scenes from her life as she wishes they had occurred.
The Crump family’s regimented life is uprooted by the arrival of Godfrey’s sister-on-law, Lily Anne Greene (Brianna Buckley). Lily, arriving on the scene in ostentatiously bright and sharp clothing that the Crump girls cannot even dream of, is a hard-drinking, hard-socializing member of the Communist Party (because it is in favor of eliminating Jim Crow laws). Her appearance not only introduces a measure of freedom of thought into the basement apartment where they live, but it also complicates Godfrey’s life, as people begin to think of him as a Communist by association with the ebullient Lily. Since it is the early 50’s, that is not something he wants attached to his name.
Eventually, Nottage doubles down on the motif of bringing in an outsider to highlight internal passion and drama when Godfrey brings home a new bride (a German immigrant played by Emily Tate), a white woman in mimicry of Father Divine’s recent marriage to a Canadian. Gerte at first seems a bit of a naif, but as she opens up more, we see that she is in her own way a rebel like Lily (though nowhere near her extreme).
Director Tyrone Phillips gets some outstanding performances from his entire cast. Sims plays Godfrey’s desperation discover why he was left alone as the driving force of his life. It informs his newfound religion, his confusion over his feelings for Lily (with whom he shares a past), and even his honest and abiding love for his daughters. Lee is outstanding as the fiery, indomitable Ermina; she’s a constant breath of fresh air in any scene she’s a part of. Tate’s throughout the play is fun to watch as she takes this white German woman (only a half-decade after WWII no less) and works to integrate her into the Crumps’ lives only to meet massive resistance from both daughters.
Bell carries the weight of the play on her shoulders and is wonderful in the role of the wallflower daughter whose imagination is the greatest thing about her life. Her internalized and understated performance allows us to see all of the more flamboyant performances through her eyes, though it is by no means emotionless. Indeed, Ernestine goes through just about every emotion possible during this play and Bell is a master of subtle expressions.
Among those flamboyant performances is Buckley’s Lily. Buckley is a force of nature in this play: entering like a whirlwind in red, she immediately claims the stage, and whether boisterously drunk, audaciously sexy, or honestly tender, her Lily shines not only as the object of her nieces’ affection but as one of the best performances I’ve seen this year.
Phillips had plenty of quality help in this play. That shabby basement apartment is the product of Arnel Sancianco’s imagination. Lighting shifts are subtle and perfect in Kathy A. Perkins’ scheme. Christine Pascual’s costumes are glorious. Matt Test’s sound design includes all sorts of wonderful jazzy music. And this is one straight play that definitely needs a choreographer, and Jon Martinez creates some lovely and imaginative variations of 50s-era bebop as well as some classical dances.
Crumbs From the Table of Joy asks us to find the delightful crumbs whenever and wherever we can because we don’t always have full access to the table, but it suggests that the crumbs just may be enough. It’s a quiet, simple play by Nottage, as understated as its main character, but it offers us a different glimpse into the playwright than her Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat and Ruined; it’s a sweet, lovely, loving play that never devolves into sappiness, and a small treasure in its own right.
Crumbs From the Table of Joy is now playing at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago until Nov 18. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and attheatreinchicago.com.