Crumbs From the Table of Joy
City life can be a little daunting to a fresh-faced country girl, especially one in the throes of adolescence. Add to that a grief-stricken father who frowns on radio and television in favor of righteous living, a sister who’s boy crazy, an aunt who spouts Communist manifestos, and your splintered family is the only African-American one in your 1950s Brooklyn neighborhood.
Ernestine Crump is the 17-year-old narrator of Lynn Nottage’s coming-of-age drama Crumbs From the Table of Joy, and through her eyes we witness the struggles, strains and small triumphs of a family in the midst of change.
Ernestine’s father and recent widow, Godfrey Crump, packs his two adolescent daughters and moves them from rural Florida to Brooklyn in hopes of meeting with Father Divine, a puritanical preacher. Godfrey is so rife with sorrow he ignores his daughters as he frantically scribbles out questions to ask Father Divine. The homestead is a dreary one until two women burst into their lives—Aunt Lily, a party-loving political powder keg, and Gerte, a Nazi survivor with eyes for Godfrey.
This is a looking-back story, so there is a comfort in knowing the young narrator survives with grace and humor, and the memories of the confrontations and conflicts are painted with strokes of sweetness, humor and hope.
California Stage captures the sentimental essence of Nottage’s story in directors Ray Tatar and Wanel Thomas’ production of Crumbs From the Table of Joy while keeping the strident speeches and underlining sadness in check. The cast, set and direction have a homespun charm that makes you care about this family and its ultimate survival.
The pacing is a bit off, however, and the first half sputters and stalls in places, though an energy-filled performance by Chinyere Anyanwu as Aunt Lily helps it along. By the second half, however, this production has warmed up and is running smooth with a cast that gels and a story that captures a time and place in one adolescent girl’s life.
Shelandra Goss as the young narrator has a quiet dignity that makes you care about her, Wayne Cook hesitates at first, but finally grabs and grows into his part of father Godfrey, and Chenelle Doutherd has you rooting for the little sister. And along with Anyanwu’s fun-filled and heartfelt performance, the other standout actor is Michelle Koehler as Gerte, the war-torn and life-weary woman who inches her way into this wounded family’s hearts.