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Crumbs From the Table of Joy

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 7, 2023

Shanel Bailey, Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen,
and Sharina Martin

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Let us time travel, back nearly three decades to the year 1995. A 30-year-old native Brooklynite playwright who would later go on to win not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes, a MacArthur "Genius Grant," and a slew of theater nominations and awards, had her first play produced Off Broadway. That playwright was Lynn Nottage, and the play was Crumbs From the Table of Joy, which is now being given a loving revival at Theatre Row by the always imaginative Keen Company.

To be clear, Crumbs From the Table of Joy is a fledgling work, so don't go expecting the level of intensity to be found in Nottage's later powerhouse dramas like Ruined and Sweat, her two Pulitzer winners from, respectively, 2009 and 2017. But this is a great opportunity to catch someone on the cusp of breaking through to the big time, even then a writer with a keen literary ear who can make us sit up and take notice within the first few lines: "Death made us nauseous with regret. It wouldn't leave us be, tugging at our stomachs and our throats."

The speaker here is 17-year-old Ernestine Crump (Shanel Bailey), and this is her story to tell in her own way. For this is a memory play, related by someone whose often romanticized recollections must be taken with a grain of salt. The year is 1950, when Ernestine, her 15-year-old sister Ermina (Malika Samuel), and their father Godfrey (Jason Bowen) wrenched themselves free of the sorrow over the death of their mother, pulled up stakes from their home in Pensacola, Florida, and moved up north to Brooklyn.

When the play begins, everything is centered on this Black family from the South learning how best to fit into a non-segregated community. "It wasn't any place to live," says Ernestine, "until I sat in the cinema, right smack between two white gals. Oh, Yes!"

But what is perhaps an exciting change for her and Ermina is not much so for Godfrey, who has staked his future on keeping his shoes shined, always displaying his best manners, and clinging tightly to his new-found born-again religious faith. To that end, he has become an adherent of Father Divine, the evangelical Black preacher with a massive following whose photograph is on display in the living room and whose every word seems to Godfrey to be channeled directly from God.

And so, it is a very orderly, low-key lifestyle for the Crumps of Brooklyn. Until one day, out of the blue, who should come sashaying into their lives but Godfrey's party-hardy sister-in-law, fashionably dressed in an expensive red outfit (one of the period costumes designed by Johanna Pan), loudly proclaiming her strongly held Communist beliefs and bearing all her worldly possessions in a couple of suitcases. She's moving in, and what's more, she's got her eyes on Godfrey, determined to take her sister's place in his bed in and in their home.

But Lynn Nottage, then as now, has a surprise or two up her sleeve, and Act I ends with a humdinger that is so unexpected that my adding anything further would be a spoiler. If you are familiar with the playwright's wicked sense of humor (on display, say, in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark or in Clyde's), you'll recognize the style even in this early work.

In Act II, and once the dust settles, the tone of the play normalizes again and, with the exception of one very funny fantasy sequence, it all works itself out the way it generally does in one of Ernestine's favorite films; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn comes to mind as a possible model. So even if Crumbs From the Table of Joy is less than top-drawer Nottage, it is pretty much must-see for admirers of the playwright. Keen Company, director Colette Robert, and the excellent cast have done themselves proud with this production, which is dramatic, funny, and highly entertaining. Not bad for a novice playwright!

Crumbs From the Table of Joy
Through April 1, 2023
Keen Company
Theatre Row, Theatre Five, 410 West 42nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: