Raven Theatre has just launched its 2018-19 season with CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage, directed by Tyrone Phillips, which will run through November 18th, 2018 on Raven’s 99-seat East Stage, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago.
CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY features Chanell Bell as earnest Ernestine Crump; Brianna Buckley, a breath of fresh air as Lily Anne Green; Brandi Jiminez Lee as precocious Ermina Crump; Terence Sims as life’s defeated Godfrey Crump; and Emily Tate as the inexplicably placed realist Gerte Schulte. The play was originally commissioned by Second Stage as part of a program aimed at teenage audiences. Directed at a leisurely pace, the stagecraft is believable, the actors talented in this seemingly underdeveloped script.
The Raven Theatre takes us to a dismal yet homey basement apartment in Brooklyn in the year 1950. Godfrey Crump, an illiterate baker, has moved his teenaged daughters Ernestine and Ermina to Brooklyn from Pensacola, Florida, in an effort to escape Jim Crow and his own excessive grief at the recent death of his wife. Ernestine is the narrator who provides us with the memories of her life; she seems to be a post-adolescent version of Lynn Nottage herself, examining and reimagining a time and place even while living within it’s confines. Ernestine, who escapes dreariness by going to the movies, offers us fragments of her hopes and dreams, confusing the drama and ultimately sews up the story a little too neatly.
The play suffers from an abundance of clichés. There’s a lot of references to the whites who must be feared and avoided; there are the unseen Orthodox Jews who live upstairs and pay the girls to be their “Shabbos goys”, there’s no television, dad controls the radio, and there’s a lot of boredom for the girls. It’s easy to see from the get-go that Ermina, 15, is itching to escape the stultifying life at home with straightlaced sis and her dad, who is mesmerized by a radio evangelist called “Father Divine”.
Into their circumscribed and humdrum lives comes Aunt Lily, breezing in from Harlem with no apparent means of support, a lot of half-baked notions about Communism and her role in promoting it, a shrewd sense of racial politics, and a frustrated sexuality. She drinks, she smokes, she dances, she’s outspoken, she makes unrequited overtures to dad, and she’s much the most interesting and fully developed character in this play. As portrayed by Buckley, she is endlessly vivid, absorbing, in a word- entertaining. The girls and the audience are immediately caught up in fascination with Lily’s apparent daring and freedom, only to watch her bold pronouncements wither from her lack of direction, purpose and appreciation. Lily is floundering, and when she tries to catch hold of Godfrey, finds there is nothing in her grasp.
At this point, the play diverges from the probable. Godfrey meets, marries, stays away for days with and brings home a new white, German-immigrant wife with whom he apparently does not have marital relations. She infests their life with hausfrau tidiness, occasionally bursting into song and whining about her tough life in Nazi Germany. Of course, the girls and their aunt hate her, yet there are predictable hints that things will all turn out well in the end.
The entire work seems to be a coming-of age story that falters within and apologizes for itself, a setup for a black situation comedy from the 50’s. The actors do their best, but there is a pervasive feeling of contrived superficiality, reliance on symbols that fall flat, just what you’d expect from Ernestine’s first story, and an early effort from a playwright who went on to earn 2 Pulitzer prizes.
The production team for CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY includes: Arnel Sancianco (scenic design), Christine Pascual (costume design), Kathy A. Perkins (lighting design), Matt Test (sound design), Mealah Heidenreich (props design), Jon Martinez (choreography), Eva Breneman (dialect coach).
For information and tickets to shows at Raven Theatre, go to raven theatre website or by calling (773) 338-2177.
All photos by Michael Brosilow