Playwright Lynn Nottage won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice (Sweat in 2017 and Ruined in 2009), renewing interest in her other plays. Her 1995 family drama Crumbs from the Table of Joy, produced by South Camden Theatre Company, makes a welcome choice for the small troupe's final production of their 2018 season celebrating women playwrights.
Teenager Ernestine Crump (Jabriah Anderson) narrates this memory play, addressing the audience and sharing memories of moving from Florida to Brooklyn with her widowed father Godfrey (Eric Carter) and sister Ermina (Asharee Greer).
Robert Bingaman's suitably cramped set, ably lit by Joshua Samors, shows a modest basement apartment, its only extravagance a large portrait of evangelist Father Divine (best known in Philadelphia for his North Broad Street headquarters, the Divine Lorraine Hotel, soon to be condominiums). Whenever Godfrey is perplexed — and with two teenage daughters, that's often — he writes his questions for Father Divine in a notepad, but never sends them.
"Virtue, Victory, Virginity"
The girls escape Godfrey's stern application of Divine's three-word dictum at the movies. Real life proves more complicated, however, as they struggle to adjust to comparatively integrated Brooklyn. "Something better," Ernestine realizes, "is always over the horizon."
Help and enlightenment appear via Aunt Lily (Wendi Smith), their mother's sister and a civil rights revolutionary. "She was the first Negro woman we'd seen dressed like a white lady," Ernestine marvels. Lily moves in and tutors the girls in the need to break barriers but has other plans for Godfrey that backfire.
Godfrey flees the house, but a chance encounter leads to a huge life change for everyone. Suddenly, the trepidation the girls feel about whites and the frustration stirred by Lily's fervor hits home when German — and white — Gerte (Colleen Marker) enters their lives.
A route to the truth
In Act II, the apartment becomes even more claustrophobic, and the play shifts from what seems at first a likable coming-of-age story to a more complicated, stressful situation. Battle lines are drawn between the four women sharing that small home, and Godfrey can't force peace with Father Divine's tidy aphorisms.
"Ernestine," Lily warns ominously, "the world gives nothing. It takes!" Director Connie Norwood's sincere production, however, gives a lot. Anderson makes a charming and genuine narrator who sometimes toys with us. "I wish he said that," she remarks about a too-good-to-be-true moment when Godfrey approves of their movie habit. She imagines humble Gerte as a sultry Marlene Dietrich, and Marker provides it.
Greer excels as precocious Ermina, and Smith plays Lily with seductive confidence. Marker reveals Gerte's depths while saying little until she's forced. Carter's Godfrey is a mournful widower who shows his daughters a brave face while hoping Father Divine will repair his life. Norwood's costumes suggest the period well, as do Raymond Croce Sr.'s music choices.
Though Crumbs from the Table of Joy explores important post-World War II issues, it's most effective in portraying how such upheavals affect Ernestine as she approaches high-school graduation and independence in a frightening world. One can't help but ponder how the challenges facing young African-American women are not so different today.
What, When, Where
Crumbs from the Table of Joy. By Lynn Nottage, Connie Norwood directed. Through November 18, 2018, at the South Camden Theatre Company's Waterfront South Theatre, 400 Jasper Street, Camden, New Jersey. (866) 811-4111 or southcamdentheatre.org.