Every artist has to start somewhere. This early memory play by subsequent two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage shows undeveloped skill. The first act drags with exposition. One main character is awkwardly written. Some of the speech is stilted. There are unanswered questions.
1950. When his wife dies, Godfrey Crump (Jason Bowen) falls apart. At a loss, he moves his family north from Florida to be closer to spiritual guide, Father Divine. “Daddy never went to church, now he quotes Divine virtue, victory and virginity…” says older daughter Ernestine (Shanel Bailey). Ernestine narrates the story stepping in and out. She has intermittent fantasies we think are actual until plot line resumes. These jerk narrative instead of enhancing it because of the way they’re presented.
Sharina Martin (Lily Ann Green), Jason Bowen (Godfrey Crump)
At the new home, a basement apartment in Brooklyn, Ernestine and sister Erminia (Malika Samuel) are not allowed a television. Radio is limited. Both girls are required to volunteer (in pinafores) at the “religious center.” Godfrey cries and writes endless questions to Father Divine. The only sign of affection he manages to show his children is a regular bag of cookies. (He’s a baker.) The girls are country bumpkins and made fun of in school.
Suddenly, smartly dressed Aunt Lily (Sharina Martin) bursts into their lives unannounced. Lily is demanding, empowered and narcissistic. She wasn’t “able” to make her sister’s funeral, but knows where to come when down and out. There are suitcases in the hall. Family is family. Declaring herself too bright a Negro to hold a job (any job) for long, she seems to have turned to Communist activism in order to further the cause.
Malika Samuel (Erminia), Shanel Bailey (Ernestine), Natalia Payne (Gerte), Jason Bowen (Godfrey)
“In the 1940s and 1950s, Communists in Harlem were well-known for their role in opposing police brutality, housing and job discrimination…” (Liberation-A Newspaper of the Party for Socialism and Liberation) They also faced Senator Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC. We never find out if Lily is actually involved. She seems to disappear every night and wake hungover in Brooklyn every morning. The girls’ aunt also makes a play for Godfrey…who appears seriously tempted.
When the man of the house can’t bear it anymore, he disappears for some days returning with a German immigrant named Gerte (Natalia Payne) he met on a train or bus. They’re married…yet chaste together. A lovely (and grateful) woman, she’s thrown into a household where the girls are suspicious, Lily jealous and antagonistic, Godfrey oblivious. We admire her equanimity.
The characters have to find their water level in an unwelcoming world.
Natalia Payne (Gerte), Jason Bowen (Godfrey)
The company is well balanced with Natalia Payne’s Gerte particularly credible.
Director Colette Robert does a yeoman like job with the production. Lily’s physical looseness is apt contrast to Godfrey’s timid, exhausted withholding, Ernestine’s curious rigidity, and Gerte’s quiet grace. Only Erminia shows energy and optimism. Work by Fight and Intimacy director Rocio Mendez shines during an attempted seduction.
Scenic design (Brendan Gonzales Boston) creates an environment as drab and expressionless as its senior inhabitant. It’s hard to conceive there wouldn’t have been something left out after being used or a memory besides photos of Godfrey’s deceased wife and the spiritual leader. When Ernestine is sewing, there are no tools or kit.
Johanna Pan’s costumes fit adults’ characters but look pointedly as if trying to make children look younger than those who act the parts. Waists are too high, styles not just unsophisticated but paper doll-like.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: Malika Samuel (Erminia), Jason Bowen (Godfrey), Shanel Bailey (Ernestine)
Keen Company presents
Crumbs from the Table of Joy by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Colette Robert
Through April 1, 2023
410 West 42 Street