Death is often just as much of a beginning as an ending. This is true for the family at the center of Crumbs From the Table of Joy, an early play by Lynn Nottage now receiving a heartfelt revival from Keen Company at Theatre Row.
Crumbs begins in 1950 with the death of Sandra Crump, wife of Godfrey (Jason Bowen) and mother of Ernestine (Shanel Bailey) and Ermina (a hilarious Malika Samuel). Bereft, Godfrey falls under the sway of the charismatic preacher Father Divine and decides to move his family from Pensacola to Brooklyn to be closer to his “peace mission.” Godfrey’s austere, God-fearing household is disrupted by the arrival of Sandra’s sister Lily (Sharina Martin), a self-described Communist in a gorgeously tailored red suit. Skeptical of Father Divine but always up for a party, she is determined to fill the maternal void left by her late sister. This plan is complicated when Godfrey meets Gerte (Natalia Payne), a recent immigrant from Germany looking to make her own fresh start.
First produced at Second Stage in 1995, Crumbs is an early work from Nottage, penned long before she won Pulitzer Prizes for ”Ruined” and ”Sweat”. As in those later plays, Nottage displays a shrewd understanding of the beautiful contradictions of existence. Big ideas enter the Crump household, but they do not drive the plot. Rather, they offer color and context to a truthful depiction of messy human motivation, in which characters may not be entirely honest with themselves. Under Colette Robert’s sensitive direction, the actors deliver memorable three-dimensional performances, bringing vibrant color to an era too often cast in black-and-white.
The story is filtered through the memories of Ernestine, whom Bailey convincingly inhabits both as a teenager and a much older woman looking back at her formative years. Warm and engaging as a narrator, it is from her imagination that much of the magic of this play springs.
Like a Black Mame Dennis, Lily is both outrageous and delightful to watch, supported by Martin’s larger-than-life performance. She upbraids Gerte for making the girls “feel like servants in their own house,” yet sees no hypocrisy in demanding Ernestine bring her an ashtray just minutes later. But honestly, who wants to watch a character whose actions perfectly comply with their finely cultivated opinions?
Little is said about Gerte’s backstory, but Payne’s haunted expression and steely determination tells us all we need to know: She has seen horrible things and she’s going to make this new American life work, because she’s never going back.
Bowen delivers a remarkable performance as a father with big plans for his progeny, bringing specificity and personality to the larger story of the Great Migration. “My gals are going to have the best. They’re gonna rise above you and I,” he tells Lily. Clad in a three-piece suit (which he wears to work the late shift at a bakery) and clinging to his copy of the New York Times, Godfrey is driven by the same impulse that convinces people to design and build cathedrals they will never see completed. He firmly believes that the choices he makes today will reverberate through the generations, which makes his dance with temptation thrilling to watch.
Brendan Gonzales Boston’s set is a fine example of how to enhance the tone of a play on an off-Broadway budget: The spartan basement emphasizes the things indelibly burned into Ernestine’s memory (a framed photo of Father Divine, a dress model, a single high window) while also conveying the oppressive abstinence on her life in Brooklyn. Johanna Pan’s costumes are similarly excellent, with Lily’s suit immediately making a big splash. Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting helps to create some of the dramatic asides and alternate realities that make ”Crumbs” such a fun watch. And Broken Chord’s sound design brings the outside world into the small apartment — especially the sound of televisions from neighboring apartments, a great source of covetousness for the girls who have to make do with a standing radio.
An underappreciated gem from an incredibly talented dramatist, Crumbs From the Table of Joy is the kind of play that Keen Company does best. The company makes a meal out of Crumbs with this outstanding revival, giving it a much-deserved second look in New York.