Lynn Nottage is a playwright whose work is new to me, so Burning Coal Theatre Company's current production of her memory play Crumbs from the Table of Joy is a welcome introduction to a writer of exceptional dramatic gifts.
Reviewing the New York production, the critic Clive Barnes found in Nottage an artistic cross between Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry. That's an apt comparison on superficial as well as more substantive terms. Crumbs from the Table of Joy owes a little something to The Glass Menagerie in its narrative structure and to Williams in its author's often breathtaking (and, happily, unselfconscious) gift of dramatic poetry. "Death made us nauseous," the young protagonist tells us, "[...] it wouldn't leave us be." I could quibble with Nottage's grammar, but sometimes lyricism must circumvent accuracy: "Death nauseated us" would be more correct, but less soaring. On the other hand, while Nottage shares with Hansberry a few particulars — both African-American women working in a field still too clearly dominated by men; both quote Langston Hughes for their titles — Crumbs owes nothing to the Hansberry of what George C. Wolfe once dismissed, hilariously, as "Mama-on-the-couch" plays.
I don't know if Nottage is recalling, as Williams did, her own family, and I'm not sure it matters. The splendid comedy she unearths in this play can stand in for all too many personal histories in what is sometimes rather condescendingly termed "the African-American Experience": poverty, terror, bitterness, rage, oppressive religious iconoclasm, and the inexorable specter of Jim Crow in law and in fact. So many lives have been boiled in the crucible of American racism, any story, no matter how particular or individualized, becomes part of the story.
The most remarkable aspects of Nottage's dramaturgy are an ear for dialogue both colloquial and lyric, an astonishing lack of bitterness, and a refusal to make her characters conform to idealized — thus theatrically dead — stereotype. The Crump family is made up of individuals, not totems, and while their experience is somewhat naturally symptomatic of a wider American vista, they ultimately stand only for themselves.
Like Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, the elder sibling in a mixture of love and exasperation — often the same thing — remembers her family in Crumbs. (There's also a slight identification with Laura Wingfield's collection of glass animals in this daughter's prized graduation dress, which briefly suffers a fate similar to that of Laura's unicorn.) With disarming humor, Ernestine recalls how her grieving, widowed father Godfrey, besotted "with a monk's devotion" to the radio cleric Father Divine, transported the family to Brooklyn from the rural South. In this strange urban landscape, Ernestine's younger sister Ermina begins to chafe under their father's well-meaning religious despotism and the girls are taken under the sodden wing of their dead mother's sister Lily Ann Green, a Harlem free spirit who espouses Communism, bourbon, and Charlie Parker with equal fervor. In the play's deliciously shocking Act One finale, a wayward Godfrey brings home a new wife: the very white, German immigrant Gerte whose battle with the family's own prejudice finds its richest antagonist in the permanent houseguest Lily.
Godfrey's pain — his conflicting memories and desires, wants and needs — is paralleled by those of his children for the little luxuries of everyday existence enjoyed by their schoolmates. His dismissal of their pleas is, for Nottage, at the crux of the Crumps' dilemma: others have luxuries because "They white." That fact also underlies Godfrey's panic when innocently touched by Gerte on the subway. This terror is borne out later when, walking down a Brooklyn street with Gerte, Godfrey is savagely beaten for the unpardonable sin of holding his white wife's hand in public.
It is in the character of this second wife that the generosity of Nottage's writing is most apparent. Gerte's pain, anger, and frustration as no less valid than those of the Crumps; the tragedy is, none of them see it. This is made manifest when, after the assault on Godfrey, we find Gerte squeezed next to the stove on the kitchen floor, weeping bitterly with a grief no one else notices. Yet it is Gerte who will come closest to exorcising the paralyzing hold Father Divine has on Godfrey, made horribly explicit in the madness of drawers full of notes and unanswered questions.
Nottage is too sharp an artist to comment directly on the conflicting examples of womanhood presented to the girls by Lily and Gerte, but the implication is clear. While Lily's Communism is ardent — righteous and impassioned — it's generally well considered and somehow never arch, shrill, sanctimonious or boring. (That's a rarity in American drama, which is usually perfectly happy to forgive its leftist characters so long as they either eschew the Party or repent.) Gerte has more in common with Lily than Lily knows, or can see. In the play's most heartbreaking moment, Ernestine imagines Lily and Gerte engaging in mutual slugs from her aunt's ever-present bottle and engaging in a brief, impromptu dance of sisterly solidarity. Thus does a favorite running joke of the playwright's — Ernestine's fantasies of the family, conducted to her own liking — finds its fullest expression, moving it beyond a knowing, rueful jest. In the girl's repeated mantra ("At least that's what I wish she'd said") lies a moving, all-too-human reality: Ernestine's fantasies are always more intelligent, beautiful, loving, and articulate than the reality.
Carmen-maria Mandley directs the play in vivid strokes, aided by the evocative set designs by Jennifer Mann Becker that both suggest the cramped, impoverished quarters the Crumps occupy and allow the characters — especially Ernestine — room to expand toward the wider world outside. Jared Coseglia's sound and Chris Bernier's lighting designs are less successful. The Bop recording that begins the play — as with all recorded sound in this production — is at too high a volume, drowning the actors out just as Godfrey's wailing cries cover Ernestine's opening narration. Similarly, the frequent supertitles and projected images pass too quickly to register, let alone absorb, which is a pity as most of them are beauties ("The Ailments of the Heart" for example.)
The cast is almost uniformly superb. Vaughan Michael brings a poignant balance to Godfrey, locating the loving father amid his obsessions. Hope Hynes makes Gerte a figure at once mysterious and knowable and never tips her hand in the moments when Ernestine's fantasies take over (as when, hilariously, she first imagines Gerte as a Dietrichian slut.) With her Josephine Baker hairdo and sense of chic Renee Sallee gets the look of Lily just right, but the role is just beyond her grasp. She's never quite as lively as she seems to the girls, nor as large a threat as Godfrey perceives. Watching Sallee I kept thinking, wistfully, of the younger J'anet DuBois, an ideal actress for this sort of part.
The girls are beyond praise. Lucinda Harris's Ermina has exactly the right amount of adolescent resentment and untried rebellion yet never quite loses the childish immaturity the part requires. Best of all is the amazing Rowena Johnson, whose performance as Ernestine is a tour de force I suspect would be quite beyond many actors twice her age. Her Ernestine is matter of fact, casual, and at the same time endowed with absolute authority — a presence we can only call star quality. There is in her acting not a single wrong note or misplaced stress. She is someone to watch, and with gratitude.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Crumbs from the Table of Joy Thursday-Saturday, June 5-7 and 12-14, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 8 and 15, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre in the BTI Center for Performing Arts, 2 South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel). (Note: There will be a $75 fund-raiser on June 14 preceded by a gala reception with hors d'oeuvres and wine at 6:30 p.m. and followed by a moderated talkback session hosted by Raleigh psychiatrist Dr. Assad Meymandi and Raleigh News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders.) 919/388-0066 or email@example.com or http://www.burningcoal.org/Crumbs.htm. http://www.burningcoal.org/CrumbsPage.htm.
Corrected (lightly) 6/9/03.