Key Reviews: Revolution in ‘Crumbs From the Table of Joy’

These are the third set of reviews from this year’s The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program. Members of this cohort are: Sierra Carlson, Yasmin Mikhaiel, Aaron Lockman, Elon Sloan, and Lonnae Hickman. All reviews are workshopped and edited by co-facilitators Oliver Sava and Regina Victor. Check out their reviews of Crumbs from the Table of Joy at Raven Theatre below! 

Yasmin Mikhaiel
Crumbs from the Table of Joy at Raven Theatre is the story of a bereaved family; newly religious devotee Godfrey Crump (Terence Sims) and his two teenage daughters, Ernestine (Chanell Bell) and Ermina (Brandi Jiminez Lee). After the death of the mother, the family moves from Florida to New York, leaving them to grapple with the difficulties of being in a new place with different rules. They are soon joined by the provocative Aunt Lily (Brianna Buckley), sister to their late mother and wife. Under the direction of Tyrone Phillips, women are the ones who persevere through the darkness.
Raven Theatre, currently in its 36th season, has a history of producing classic modern dramas. It does not have a history of producing work of and by people of color. With new artistic director Cody Estle at the helm of his first season, Crumbs from the Table of Joy is a heartening choice as the season opener, one that was welcomed by an eager audience. The playwright Lynn Nottage is a twice-winning awardee of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first woman to do so. She’s revered for writing work that covers issues that don’t make it into the media, and her 1950s tale does not seem so far from home.

Set in their basement apartment, the set is gorgeously period and playful, with beautiful architecture that serves multiple purposes (scenic design Arnel Sancianco). The back brick walls of sponged clouds envelop the Crump basement apartment, along it, exposed pipes course floor-to-ceiling. Truthfully, the set might be too beautiful, for the Crumps are constantly mentioning their lower-class status in home-made clothes. Thus, further rooting us, are the costumes (Christine Pascual) and wigs (Megan Pirtle), expertly designed and emphasizing the dichotomy between country and city styling.
It is a time of upheaval, much like ours, social and political tensions are plagued with racism and a Red Scare. This is a memory play from the perspective of Ernestine, one that bounces between her recollections and how she wishes events went down. We pick up on the pattern as gorgeous lights (Kathy A. Perkins) signal a shift to her dreams, especially in a late night mambo with the potential to diffuse matriarchal tension. But we quickly snap back to the more dim reality of familial uncertainty in the face of a spiraling man seeking direction.

I hurt so hard for the teen sisters, dressed country and shocked with new city living without a mother. Godfrey is unaware to their needs and is unable to offer anything but cookies as a token of affection. Here, the production lags, the energy solemn—until the smartly dressed Aunt Lily, talking revolution and empowerment, enters. The girls and the show instantly transform. We soon see they can hold their own. The younger of the two, Ermina, truly emanates strength and rolls up her sleeves, sometimes literally, to be taken seriously and get noticed. The more studious Ernestine has to try a little harder to make her way.

When a major twist further alters their home life, questions of white guilt, unity, and the impossibility of ignoring race come rushing forward. It is here where the necessity of this play in our own dark timeline shines through. But one must question who this production is truly for when ticket prices are three to four times the hourly minimum wage in Chicago. A lower-middle class family like the Crump’s certainly couldn’t afford it.
Ultimately, Crumbs from the Table of Joy reminds us that change doesn’t come easy, especially when the places we view as safe are among the most dangerous and potentially unwelcoming. When visiting Raven, take along a trusted friend as conversation is a post-show must.

Lonnae Hickman
Raven Theatre Company’s Crumbs From The Table Of Joy by Lynn Nottage and directed by Tyrone Phillips is about a family who moves to Brooklyn after suffering from the loss of a loved one. This play centers around a retelling by Ernestine Crump (Chanell Bell), and her experiences growing out of girlhood. It makes a statement of change, and leaves the audience with Ernestine’s beautiful and tragic memories.

When I walked into Raven Theatre’s house, I was struck by the set. Ethereal clouds showcased by brick surrounded the open apartment set. While the play setting is all over the city, the literal set stays still. The scenic and lighting designers, Arnel Sancianco and Kathy A. Perkins, collaborate with fluidity to create sensory immersion of a memory. I was able to know every moment the setting changed and where the characters were. The sound design (Matt Test) also guides the shows themes and transitions allowing us to be transported to a New York basement. This show is constantly guided by its design and tech controlling the audience’s perspective. Really all the design elements were so full of life, including the period costumes (Christine Pascual). One of my favorite tech design moments was being transported inside the subway car, by only lights and sound. It felt as if there was a completely new set design. This speaks to the impeccable detail of every designer on the production team.

Here’s where this is a double edged sword. While, the set was striking the motivation to tell the story seemed lacking.The actors in this show seemed to be less thrilled to be performing Crumbs From the Table of Joy. Everytime an actor flubbed a line, which was often, it took me a little out of the story. It devalued impactful moments of tension. Could this be because Raven Theatre has little to no history of creating shows for people of color? I don’t know. What I do know is that there was an inconsistency with the vision for the script, and what each actor interpreted. It wasn’t until Brianna Buckley, as the aunt Lily Anne Green, entered that the show regained interest. Her character was full of complexity in both the writing and performance, and I found myself empathizing with her every action. Her character had motivation for every single thing she did, on and offstage.

The play itself is long and wordy, and this may be why there was an initial lack of energy from the actors. This show tackles many ideas that it can be hard for any director to effortlessly juggle. Seeing a family of only Black faces on stage telling their story was compelling, and I want to see more. Let me make it clear again, I want to see more shows like this. I want to see family dramas of every shade, but I don’t want institutions to perform them because diversity is “in”. This show has similarities to my own life that make the writing and moments in the play very impactful. We deserve to see shows like this one that give meaning. What does this story mean to the artist onstage and its mostly white audience? Raven’s Theatre’s show has some of the most impressive designs and tech that I’ve seen, but the production needs to know it means more than just seeing “diversity” onstage.

Elon Sloan
Raven Theatre’s production of Crumbs from the Table of Joy by Lynn Nottage follows the Crump family through the year 1950 as they move from rural Pennsylvania to New York. In the wake of his wife’s death Godfrey Crump moves his two daughters to New York which he thinks is closer to Father Divine, a mail correspondence pastor.

This show has its hitches here and there but its held tightly together by the vision of its director Tyrone Phillips. The eldest daughter, Ernestine, played by Chanel Bell, is the main character and narrator. She loves going to the movies and her fanciful cinematic insertions shape the story, and contribute the the overall warm tone of the story.

The play fits neatly between family drama and memory play, but thematically it ties together conversations about Communism, Black masculinity, interracial marriage, good parenting, and how Christian faith should play out in daily life and politics. It also maintains a nostalgic period drama feel without the usual historical revisionism. Contemporary plays that wish to take on politics are sometimes all drama, and no political content, but Lynn Nottage is an expert at balancing here.

The set design helps us get inside Ernestine’s head as well. The set by Arnel Sancianco features a living and dining room with frame walls and fluffy clouds painted onto the cinder blocks of the back wall of the theatre. The theatre feels huge when you walk in. This clouds on cinder blocks look encapsulates Ernestine’s mindset well. She’s dreaming of the romance of a revolution like her Communist aunt, Lily, but it is also clear that real danger and bleakness lie ahead for her if she chooses that path. My only qualm with the set is that the Crumps’ apartment looks more like a comfortable middle class home cut in half, than the tight barely habitable Brooklyn apartment the characters constantly reference.

The lighting, done by Kathy A. Perkins, also helps highlight Ernestine’s mindset. Ernestine’s cinematic moments are often accompanied by an odd pink and blue light. This light can feel dreamy when it’s just a bit of side light highlighting the actors features, but it feels otherworldly and adds tension when appropriate. The lighting reminds us that we’re wading with Ernestine through her fondest memories of a time filled with danger and loss.

Overall, this is a lovely show which also carries meaning. This is really the kind of play that makes you want to sit down and have long talk afterwards, where you fill in the gaps and parse out the implications of what you just saw.

Aaron Lockman
Crumbs from the Table of Joy starts with a monologue from our protagonist, Ernestine Crump (Chanell Bell), which details her family’s move to Brooklyn after losing their mother. Ernestine and her sister Ermina (Brandi Jimenez Lee) adjust to their new life in New York and listen to their father Godfrey (Terence Sims) pontificate on the challenges of being black in a mostly white neighborhood, and the awesomeness of a mail order evangelist. The beginning of this show moves quite slowly, and it doesn’t start in earnest until Aunt Lily (Brianna Buckley), the sister of the Crumps’ deceased mother, arrives and announces apropos of nothing that she’s going to be living with them. Philosophical differences progress between Godfrey and Lily provide much of the action for the rest of the play.

This is a fascinating script with many interesting things to say — but it is also very slow and character-based, and requires a keen sense of pacing from its director. That is absent here, and as a result the two and a half hours go by extremely slowly. There are some excellent performances: Brianna Buckley in particular deserves props as the bombastic, witty, outwardly confident yet secretly terrified Aunt Lily. And I found Emily Tate hilarious and relatable as Gerte, a character whom I shall only describe here as the show’s delightfully cringe-inducing end-of-Act-One twist. Indeed, the show does gain some tension in its second half, as issues that characters have been arguing about for an hour finally come to fruition.

Some important questions arise from the conversations, lectures, and arguments we see: for instance, whether Black Americans have an inherent responsibility to fight for civil rights, as Aunt Lily believes, or if there is merit in keeping one’s head down and scraping by, as Godfrey prefers. Later, we get to explore what kind of responsibility a white person in an interracial marriage has when occupying a black space.

The text explores these questions in depth — but the production is plagued with such a lack of momentum, so little connectivity between scenes, that they eventually fall by the wayside. Eventually, I found myself lamenting the considerable talent on display from the cast and production team alike. Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco crafts a fascinating multilayered set that gives the location a sense of scope, blue sky and clouds in the back winding down to industrial city pipes, winding down to the charming apartment’s interior. And the lighting design from Kathy A. Perkins creates some lovely, intimate moments — bright sunny daylight tones will shift suddenly into deep, luscious reds and blues when a character has a particularly momentous realization.

There is a strong family drama somewhere in here, with important points about race, revolution, and progress that contribute well to the national dialogue — a moving story about a woman looking back at her past, parsing through her memories and trying to figure out which forces, societal, parental, and otherwise, have shaped her into the person she is today. I would have really liked to see that show. But as it is, Crumbs from the Table of Joy is charming and competent, but never quite gels into one cohesive whole.

Sierra Carlson

The day after I attended Crumbs from the Table of Joy, I reached for my copy of Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. One of the essays in this anthology is titled “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Ernestine Crump’s journey into adulthood in 1950s Brooklyn is that of a young black woman redefining difference and defining herself amidst class and race disparities, which shares themes with Lorde’s book. Raven Theatre’s production of this play is done with an intelligent casting and an imaginative design that come together beautifully.

Godfrey Crump (Terence Sims) has left Pensacola, Florida with his two daughters, Ernestine (Chanell Bell) and Ermina (Brandi Jiminez Lee), and begun a new life in Brooklyn, New York. With the recent death of his wife, Godfrey is overwhelmed with questions and believes that the answers lie with Father Divine. His image looms over the basement dwelling, and it is a powerful image that everything around which is centered. At a time when most homes are beginning to re-center around the television, the Crumps are beginning to re-center around the image of this man. In fact, the entire production seems to be centering around a man. A curious position for a memory play from the perspective of a young woman.

Terence Sims’ performance as the damaged patriarch is heart-wrenchingly distant. Both the man and the performance feel disconnected from the surrounding world. I find myself smiling with the rest of the characters on stage whenever he reveals cookies from his jacket pocket, but other than that I am unaffected. Although the direction is constantly putting this man front and center, he is not the one I’m interested in. It is Chanell Bell I want to give my attention to. Bell transitions from character to narrator seamlessly, turning from a scene to share her thoughts with the audience.

In fact, it is the women in this production who source all the soul. As Ernestine’s sister and side-kick, Brandi Jiminez Lee is the little sister that you can’t help but love, despite how loud she can be. And when Brianna Buckley struts onto the stage for the first time… damn. Can I say “damn”? Someone said damn. Buckley burns throughout the evening as Lily Anne Green and I can’t take my eyes off of her. Put that next to a tender yet chilling performance by Sam Bianchini as Gerte Crump, the white invader, and you have a power dynamic that threatens the ground on which both these women stand. This tension, however, never meets its potential because it is smothered by a masculine perspective that quashes an explosive femininity before it even begins.

Lynn Nottage’s memory play is given life on the intimate Raven Theatre’s stage with a basement apartment that feels lived in before lights go up, and a cohesive design makes this possible. A radio sits-in for a fallen mother and completely changes the environment when music is allowed to flow through the home. Carefully curated props provide history and Mealah Heidenreich should be applauded for her work. Whether it’s a hand-sewn graduation dress, Aunt Lily’s prized suit, or Godfrey Crump’s finest shoes, costume designer Christine Pascual has a great responsibility that is executed skillfully as one of the pillars of this production. All this against a set by Arnel Sancianco that portrays Brooklyn with a little cumulonimbus twist. These design elements give the production the power to share memory and the opportunity to dream.

Why did I feel such a need to return to Audre Lorde after seeing Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy? To better understand a 2018 production that was written in 1995, about the 1950s, I’ve turned to an essay from 1980. I’ll leave you with this passage from Sister Outsider that I think Ernestine Crump would have found thought-provoking. “For we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectation and response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Chanell Bell as Ernestine Crump
Brianna Buckley as Lily Ann Green
Brandi Jiminez Lee as Ermina Crump
Terence Sims as Godfrey Crump
Emily Tate as Gerte

Tyrone Phillips (director)
Lynn Nottage (playwright)
Arnel Sancianco (scenic design)
Christine Pascual (costume design)
Kathy A. Perkins (lighting design
Matt Test (sound design)
Mealah Heidenreich (props design)
Jon Martinez (choreography)
Eva Breneman (dialect coach)
Megan Pirtle (wig design)
Kanomé Jones (casting director)
Alexis Taylor (assistant director)
Cole von Glahn (production manager)
Bobby Huggins (technical director)
Wilhelm Peters (stage manager)
Sapier Weinglass (assistant stage manager)

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