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Don’t overlook Crumbs from the Table of Joy, one of Lynn Nottage’s lesser-known plays, now onstage at the Lantern. Nottage’s skill shines in this early play, weaving complex characters grounded in a strong sense of place; seeds of future plays are apparent. Directed by Bianca LaVerne Jones, this rendition of Crumbs is powerful, heartwarming, and thoughtful.
Death is not only an end but also a beginning in this memory play. The Crump family trade their life in the rural South for a new one in 1950s Brooklyn after the death of their matriarch. Grieving widower Godfrey Crump (Walter DeShields) turns to religion in the form of Father Divine to soothe his pain and to find a direction. Father Divine is a mega-church pastor or cult leader depending on who you ask. He’s never physically present in the play, but we feel his influence, thanks in part to his looming portrait, the main embellishment in Dirk Durossette’s otherwise sparse basement apartment set.
Godfrey’s teenage daughters Ernestine (Morgan Charéce Hall) and Ermina (Monet Debose) chafe under the puritanical restrictions imposed by their father on behalf of Father Divine. Soon after their arrival in Brooklyn, Aunt Lily (Brett Ashley Robinson) sweeps in as a self-appointed godmother. An outspoken communist, free-wheeling Lily is generous with her liquor pours and advice and clashes immediately with Godfrey. Tensions come to a boiling point when Godfrey suddenly marries Gerte (Hillary Parker), a German immigrant. Crumbs takes place before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage nationwide, and Godfrey’s marriage shocks the household and brings new conflicts.
The cast shines under Jones’s direction. Hall plays an awkward and impressionable Ernie, our determined narrator and guide whose opening and closing monologues richly bookend the play. She brings Nottage’s beautiful prose to life with gravitas, humor, and imagination, including passages like, “Death nearly crippled my father, slipping beneath the soles of his feet and taking away his ability to walk at will. … Death made us nauseous with regret. It clipped daddy’s tongue and put his temper to rest.”
Debose plays a precocious, blunt, and flirty Ermina, getting laughs with her physical humor and attitude. DeShields draws out Godfrey’s grief and determination, and Parker’s German accent is excellent. Robinson’s Lily is a showstopper in her fur coat and suit (costumes by Leigh Paradise). She portrays a deeply conflicted character: fiercely independent but broke, a woman full of ideals and ideas she can’t live up to, a woman who struggles against misogynoir. Robinson’s Lily boasts bravado and charisma in her larger-than-life arrival, but the actor portrays Lily’s tenderness, insecurities, and deep pain with equal care.
Crumbs feels relevant today. Our racial tensions have evolved, but they aren’t gone. Racism denies our humanity, mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, and partisanship and a cult of personality have American politics in a chokehold. Lily and Godfrey give voice to the polarizing political discourse of today, while Ernie speaks to the concerns, political awakening, hopes, and fears of today’s youth.
According to American Theatre Magazine, Nottage was the most-produced playwright of the 2022-23 season. She’s a regular on the Philly scene, including the Arden’s Barrymore-winning production of Clyde’s last winter and the Lantern’s own 2022 Fabulation. Now, Crumbs comes together as a theatrical feast.
At top: Brett Ashley Robinson (center) as Lily Ann Green with Monet Debose as Ermina Crump and Morgan Charéce Hall as Ernestine Crump in the Lantern’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
What, When, Where
Crumbs from the Table of Joy. By Lynn Nottage, directed by Bianca LaVerne Jones. $28-$45. Through December 17, 2023, at the Lantern’s St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
St. Stephen’s Theater is accessible only by stairs.
Masks are suggested, but not required.
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