Renaissance/Uprooted ‘Crumbs’ delivers heart and guts
Two young women come of age in a tumultuous time. Two older women strive to survive and make sense of their lives. Caught in the middle, a father simply tries to find a better life for his family.
Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs From the Table of Joy, a joint production of Renaissance Theatreworks and Uprooted Theatre, is a memory play told by 17 year-old Ernestine Crump. Through her stories (and a few fantasies) of her family’s Brooklyn basement apartment, we see both the possibility and the hardship of an African-American family in a 1950s America on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement.
The two companies assembled a remarkable team, but the play truly rests on the shoulders of Tiffany Yvonne Cox, as Ernestine, who guides the audience through her own story. Cox skillfully jumps in and out the action, sometimes addressing the audience directly, without breaking the rhythm of the play. She shows us the struggle of a smart country girl transplanted to the city and finding herself involved in the struggle of her people. “I think I’m a communist,” she says to her Aunt Lily, “Nobody at school likes me.” Cox navigates Ernestine so elegantly that her final monologue, in which she sums up her life in just a few minutes, feels entirely natural.
Cox is not alone on this journey. Her fellow actors bring life, depth and heart to Ernestine’s family. Marti Gobel, as vociferous and opinionated Aunt Lily Ann Green, depicts both incredible promise and heartbreak. She moved to the city to pursue Revolution (Aunt Lily inspires Ernestine’s communist tendencies), but the divide between her wishes and reality choke the life out of her over time. Gobel shows us a woman who wishes to break the barriers, to free her fellow people from oppression, but succumbs to a life of Harlem parties and liquor. Ashleigh LaThrop as Ermina, Ernestine’s younger sister, brings an acerbic youthfulness to the role that lets her cut through to the heart of the matter. Cassandra Bissell’s Gerte Schulte is a loving soul, searching for a place in the world, having survived hardship in Germany. Gerte’s support of Godfrey Crump, the girls’ father (played by Morocco Omari), is simple and true; though there are conflicts, Bissel’s portrayal convinces us of the validity of their love. Omari’s intensity as Godfrey gives a sense of history to the man. His former dissolution contributed to the death of his first wife, but Godfrey comes to New York a changed man. Omari chooses the right moments flex the character’s full strength, to show the potentially destructive man he left behind in the Deep South.
Crumbs From the Table of Joy runs at the Broadway Theatre Center in the Studio Theatre through February 6. Tickets are $34. Visit the Renaissance Theaterworks website or call the Broadway Theatre Center box office, 414-291-7800, for tickets and information.
Alan Piotrowicz is a lighting designer active in the Milwaukee theater scene.