Lynn Nottage’s 50s Memory Play Offers Inspiration in Hard Times
by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg, California Shakespeare Theater
In 1951, segregation was a social poison: What can two smart African American sisters expect from life in the U.S.? Marriage? A job in the bakery, or as a domestic? Or freedom to think, work and behave as they wish?
Don’t miss Town Hall’s marvelous “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” by Lynn Nottage, our superstar playwright. It’s a beautiful production of her 1995 memory play, brilliantly directed by Tanika Baptiste. The acting is as vibrant as the design, presenting Nottage’s work with poignancy and hilarity. The characters work their way into our hearts, touching our longings.
In “Crumbs,” we meet Godfrey Crump (Keith White), a widowed father who has transplanted his two daughters from unfriendly Florida to a new life in Brooklyn. Crumb’s name suggests his profession as a baker. “Crump” and “crumb” chime like a racist insult. It’s a low 50s put-down, calling a man a “crumb.”
Still mourning the recent death of their mother, the two teenaged sisters, Ernestine (Sundiata Ayinde) and Ermina (Asia Jackson) are rattled by the strange Northern ways. Ernestine, the keeper of memories, the holder of hope, understands both dreams and despair. As Ernestine, Ayinde breaks our hearts while making our souls sing. While younger sister Ermina observes the dilemmas that stalk the adults, her irresistible charm bursts out.
Well-meaning Godfrey has limited expectations for his daughters’ futures. When he discovers that Ernestine will be the family’s first high school graduate, he is eager to display her certificate at the bakery. We imbibe the father’s joy as he watches Ernestine sewing her hopes and dreams into her graduation dress.
Colin Johnson’s expert lighting design and Michael Kelly’s beautiful sound design create the perfect frame for this tender story. Hope Birdwell’s perfect 50s costumes take us back to that pressued, conservative era.
Scenic Designers Siera Yau and Micaela Sinclair add lovely touches to the little kitchen, like the prominent 50s Cornflakes box—Kellogg’s idea to keep people always on the clock. Because working people earned little, saving time equals food-on-the-table.
Enter hell-raising, socialist Aunt Lily (Amara Kali) who arrives to shake things up. In the wake of her sister’s death, Lily offers tantalizing hints about their mother. Lily holds up a mirror to show the girls what they can be, challenging them with new life.
When Godfrey meets a young German refugee Gerta (Emily M. Keyishian), they return home all-of-a-sudden married! Now, the girls must cope with a new “mother.” The bi-racial marriage evokes racial atrocities that recall the Holocaust.
But Lily will not allow her own dramas to be subsumed by this new wife. Kali renders Lily’s self-indulgence beautifully, stirring up our anger, too. But in every argument, she makes an indisputable point. In response, Gerta swings hilariously from ebullience to injury. They make a great duo.
“Crumbs From the Table of Joy” is a stunning “memory play,” a mix between coming-of-age and flashbacks that illuminate the present. Beautiful Lily embodies both a forward-looking activist and a lost soul. She lounges in a satin bathrobe, a cigarette in her elegant fingers, fearing that her dreams of racial freedom and equity will never be realized.
There is so much humor in this play, like a shot of rum into sweet soda. Lily’s sardonic wit filters into the girls’ poignant aspirations. It’s so exciting to take that 50s trip with them. Don’t miss it.
“Crumbs from the Table of Joy” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Tanika Baptiste, at Town Hall Theatre, Lafayette, California. Info: TownHallTheatre.com – to June 24, 2023.
Cast: Sundiata Ayinde, Asia Jackson, Keith White, Amara Kali, and Emily M. Keyishian.
Banner photo: Sundiata Ayinde (Ernestine), Keith White (Godfrey), Emily Keyishian (Gerte), Asia Jackson (Ermina). Photos: Jay Yamada