Review: “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” (Raven Theatre Company)

Terence Sims, Brandi Jiminez Lee, Chanell Bell and Brianna Buckley/Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Ernestine Crump’s family is in dire straits. She and her sister have lost their mother to illness, and their father to grief. He has moved the family from down South to 1950’s New York City in order to be closer to Father Devine, a religious leader whose strictures involve abstinence from romance and liquor, along with changing of all their given names. The family lives in a cramped Brooklyn basement apartment, and they are surrounded by white people who snicker and stare at them during the school day, at work, and at rest in the local park.

This situation doesn’t seem like the recipe for a delightful evening of theatre, but Raven’s production of “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” is just that, an accumulation of hard-won joy. As seen through the memories and fantasies of Ernestine, the Crumps are vibrant, optimistic, and determined — even as they struggle with inequity, despair, and indifference in the greater world.

The Crumps have settled into their strict and strange existence when Lily Anne Green (Brianna Buckley) breezes in to shake them out of their stupor. She openly discusses politics, dresses smart, drinks heavily, and has her eye set on Godfrey (Terence Sims). Ernestine (Chanell Bell) adores her big ideas and big adventures, though the teenager has yet to travel outside her new home. Her younger sister Ermina (Brandi Jiminez Lee) is more interested in dating than she is, and quicker to engage strangers and life’s possibilities. Though on the cusp of graduating from high school, Ernestine struggles to find her place in life, using Lily Anne and her eventual new white step-mother Gerte (Emily Tate) as two examples of how she might walk through the world as a woman.

Playwright Lynn Nottage is a national treasure, and the fact that she is not a household name frustrates me to no end. The woman has two Pulitzers, for God’s sake! No other woman has ever won two Pulitzers! And more importantly, no other living American playwright so deftly and lightly unfolds humanity and conflicting perspectives for her audience. She slowly teases out Godfrey and Lily’s frustrations, so that you understand how they wound up so frustrated and searching. And she even has sympathy for the white Gerte, who cannot help but unwisely compare her World War II deprivations to the systemic racism endured by Godfrey and Lily daily in this country. But Gerte also cares deeply about her new husband and his children, and desperately works to help them accept their grief. Throw in several remarkably fun fantasy sequences that Ernestine cribs from the Hollywood melodramas she devours at the neighborhood cinema, and you have a deeply humane, deeply entertaining look at one African American family experience in the 1950’s.

Emily Tate, Terence Sims and Brandi Jiminez Lee/Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“Crumbs From the Table of Joy” is one of Nottage’s earlier works, and it shows. It’s a little long. Ernestine’s passivity means she makes few onstage choices that affect others. But the direction by Tyrone Phillips saves that small weakness, because he allows the characters the space they need to express themselves, often in surprising ways. These people are all desire, and their feelings run to the bone. Bell’s quiet wish for a friend at play’s end was so aching, I almost ran onstage and hugged her. Sims is all explosive, understandable rage at moments. Sometimes all you need is a cookie to calm your nerves, and Tate’s simply and hilariously communicates the comfort of that. Jiminez Lee’s vivacious spirit sends her spinning all over the stage. And Buckley is mesmerizing as the unstoppable, marvelous Lily. She takes over the apartment with ease, dripping with suggestion and spark every single moment she holds the floor. Her performance is as effortless as Lily’s wardrobe and cheerful attitude are effort-full. And it is her decline that marks the rise and fall of conflict in the play. Phillips is wise to focus so much attention on Lily in his staging, and Buckley is wise to let the audience see through the cracks, because Lily’s endurance would not be so uplifting, if we did not see how determined she is not to show others her vulnerability.

The men, women, and girls of “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” are survivors, and survival is not a losing proposition, Nottage seems to tell us. Survival is hard-won, no matter how long it lasts, and it deserves celebration. Such triumph is demonstrated in every scrap of happiness we can pull together. And out of those scraps, we build our path into the world.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A humane and heartfelt memory play that features marvelous acting.

DIE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”

Show: “Crumbs From the Table of Joy”

Venue: Raven Theatre Company (6157 N Clark St)