Theatre on my Mind

Grab a Seat if You Can Afford It: Review of 'Crumbs from the Table of Joy'

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.

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Up through November 18th at Raven Theatre.