In the two-plus decades since Lynn Nottage’s “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” premiered off-Broadway, her work has become foundational to the American theater. With two Pulitzers on her mantle — one in 2009 for “Ruined,” about women struggling to survive in a war-torn Congo, and another last year for “Sweat,” her piercing autopsy of blue-collar America — Nottage has not been softened by success. Her plays remain as theatrically daring and thematically penetrating as ever. There’s never a bad time to do (or to see) a Lynn Nottage play.
But back to “Crumbs From the Table of Joy,” which director Tyrone Phillips has remounted in an uneven revival at Raven Theatre. Nottage’s later, more adventurous plays have somewhat overshadowed this one, which almost seems by design. Set in 1950, “Crumbs” is a memory play, the story of two African-American sisters — transplanted to Brooklyn by their recently widowed, born-again father — dealing with the trials of the era and the tribulations of encroaching adulthood. As told to the audience by the moviehouse-loving Ernestine Crump (Chanell Bell), the older of the two, the play draws stylistically from the films and plays of the era. It’s a little bit old-fashioned, wisely forgoing nostalgia but nonetheless indulging in some mid-century melodramatics.
‘Crumbs From the Table of Joy’
When: Through Nov. 18
Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark
Run time: Two hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
The real star of the story, and of Phillips’ production, is the girls’ aunt and their father’s sister-in-law, Lily Anne Green, played here with a bruised but whirligig vivacity by the great Brianna Buckley. From her very first entrance, where she struts across the stage wrapped in sunglasses and a fur coat, Lily Anne is a bundle of contradictions, each one more fascinating than the last. She is both fashionable, hard-partying roustabout and loud-and-proud communist, equal parts committed revolutionary and sly bunkum artist. After crashing into her relatives’ lives — not to mention into a long-term, semi-informal living arrangement — Lily Anne proceeds to raise all sorts of hell. She can’t help but clash mightily with the girls’ fervently religious, working-man father (Terence Sims), even though it mightily impedes her efforts to romance him. When Lily Anne’s leftist rhetoric finds its way into Ernestine’s school paper, Godfrey is horrified, and Ernestine finds herself more isolated than ever.
Like the rest of the play’s characters, Lily Anne maintains ideals as a kind of salve for deep emotional wounds. For Godfrey, that wound is the death of his wife, Sandra. The play begins with Ernestine describing how her mother’s death undid her father, and within a few lines he has packed up his family’s lives and moved them from Pensacola, Florida, to New York City, chasing the siren song of salvation preached by an African-American evangelist called Father Divine … who it turns out lives in Philadelphia. (Godfrey was mistakenly following the Brooklyn return address listed on one of Father Divine’s mail-order products.) As he constantly scribbles down questions to ask his new reverend and tries to manage both his grief and boiling rage, Godfrey is a man consumed by a need for order, for answers. While Sims’ performance has some lumps in it, he does manage that last part quite well.
Eventually, Godfrey’s quest for salvation leads him to a new wife, Gerte Schulte (the superb Emily Tate). a German woman whose whiteness provokes horror in Ernestine and her rambunctious younger sister Ermina (Brandi Jiminez Lee). Much like her nieces, Lily Anne is quietly — and then not so quietly — enraged at the match. That Gerte genuinely means well, and has little understanding of the real racial dynamics at play, only makes it worse. As Ernestine strives and struggles to find her place in the world — she has no friends and is unsure of what she will do once she graduates high school — none of the adults in her life are making for great mentors, even the charismatic Lily Anne.
But as all these conflicts come to a head, Phillips is unable to raise them above their melodramatic sources. While the play’s impressionistic apartment set (designed by Arnel Sancianco) features back walls painted as literal blue skies — a great touch — it too often presents an obstacle course for the actors instead of an arena. Scenes are not staged with any kind of underlying weight to the pictures being drawn, either, as if these performers could be delivering their lines from any old place on the stage. A few dreamlike interludes (featuring Kathy A. Perkins’ color-drenched lights) break away from this drudgery, but those aren’t enough. “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” may wear its period influences on its sleeve, but this production doesn’t let the play transcend them.