‘Death brought us to Brooklyn,” explains 17-year-old Ernestine Crump (Sarah Goldman), the narrator of Lynn Nottage’s “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” onstage now at the Theater at Monmouth.
It’s 1950, and Ernestine has moved north from Pensacola with her younger sister Ermina (Tori Thompson) and their widowed father Godfrey (Nathan M. Ramsey). In some ways, everything is different. Their schoolmates’ stylish clothes. The wondrous movies to be watched. The white people upstairs and all around them. In other ways, nothing has changed, including the struggle to get by, and – hardest on the girls – their father’s rage and grief.
But then, enter stylish, sexually liberated Aunt Lily (Charence Higgins, wonderfully sharp and vivacious), sister of the girls’ dead mother and a committed Communist, who immediately clashes with Godfrey. And as if that’s not enough tension, soon a white German woman, Gerte (Casey Turner, with watchful, stubborn cheer), enters the mix.
Through Ernestine’s memories and her film-inflected fantasias of what she wishes had happened, “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” tells a story of a Black family’s trials and the different ways – often at odds – that people under the same roof suffer, yearn, and hope. Chris Antony directs a vibrant and nuanced production, which runs in rep at Monmouth through Sept. 26.
“Crumbs,” which premiered in 1995, is the first full-length play by the esteemed Nottage, who went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, in 2009 for “Ruined” and in 2017 for “Sweat.” In this earlier play, we can already see the African American playwright’s recurring concerns and devices: Nottage writes about people at the margins, including Black Americans but also across differences of race, class, gender, politics, and religion. A Nottage play often creates a nexus of very different people in one place and, with clear eyes and affection, examines the interplay of their fears, longings, and love.
And so it is in the small, simply furnished Crump apartment (elegant set design by Natalie Morales). Godfrey, devastated by grief, has turned to the ascetic Father Divine, an anti-segregationist Black spiritual leader with a cult-like following. His rules, to the sisters’ chagrin, include no radio on Sundays. Lily, on the other hand, having loudly pinned her own hopes on books and Communism, drinks gin, laughs loudly and turns on the radio (on Sundays) to bebop.
We see in Lily’s and Godfrey’s bodies just how different are their approaches to salvation: Lily takes up as much space as possible, and Higgins makes her gleam as she struts and vogues, as she comes home drunk to squeal about a Cuban beau and then dance the mambo with the girls. Godfrey seems to carefully constrain his movement and often sits in silence, willing himself still, laboriously writing down questions he hopes the Father will answer. And in a finely calibrated performance, Ramsey lets us see just how fragile Godfrey’s surety sometimes is, as when Lily momentarily draws him into slinky dancing and happy shouting – remnants of the man he once was.
We watch all of this through the discerning eyes of Ernestine, in her simple country dress (fine costuming by Elizabeth Rocha), as she prepares to be the first in her family to graduate from high school. In Goldman’s superb, richly nuanced portrayal, Ernestine is candid, pensive, funny, and supremely intelligent. We can see in her face how carefully she’s processing her father’s desperate attachment to Father Divine, or her aunt’s insistence that a smart Black woman can’t keep a job.
Goldman also lets us see Ernestine as a person on the very dynamic cusp of adulthood, and modulates beautifully between Ernestine’s reflections on the working class and her teenage squabbles with Ermina (terrifically willful and sassy in Thompson’s hands); between her innocence, her knowing skepticism, and her nascent wisdom about people.
As Ernestine assesses and reflects, in Monmouth’s powerful production, her telling becomes a triumph of empathy and an affecting study of how, in a world of injustice and suffering, one might reach joy.
Separated at birth, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus are twins so identical that they could be the same person. So are their servants, both named Dromio.
And so when the Syracuse duo unwittingly arrives in Ephesus, a whole slew of people are about to become flummoxed and pissed off.
Mismatched twins are the timeless premise of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” on stage now in the bandshell, in the happy return of Fenix Theatre Company to Deering Oaks Park.
And to double-down on the farce (so to speak), each set of twins in this giddy al fresco production actually is the same person: Robbie Harrison as the Antipholi, and Michaela Micalizio as the Dromios. Hannah Cordes directs a youthful and energetic five-person cast in a tautly condensed adaptation. This “Comedy” is a scrappy and effusively creative delight of physical comedy and silliness.
In the prologue, Elliot Nye makes the convoluted exposition behind all the twins surprisingly lucid, with lots of limbs and deft physical storytelling, and then what happens is about what you’d expect: The wrong twin is dragged home to dinner with the other’s wife, Adriana (Kat Moraros), and her (unmarried!) sister Luciana (Hollie Pryor). A goldsmith (Nye) does business with the wrong twin, showering pilgrim Antipholus with inexplicable gifts and local Antipholus with debts and ire. The Antipholi even mix up their own Dromios when giving orders, and much unfortunate beating ensues. Insanity is declared, and a creaky, squatting conjurer (protean Nye, again) is called in for a cure.
It’s all ridiculous and great. And one of the greatest delights of this production is how stratospherically Harrison and Micalizio manage to suspend our disbelief, slipping seamlessly between utterly different sets of human beings.
A veritable chameleon, Harrison plays pilgrim Antipholus as sensitive, innocent, and a little uptight in his cute red hat. He moves precisely and carefully, eyeing everything with a stricken brow and wide, wary eyes, at once amazed and appalled. He’s a nice guy in a bizarro situation. And Micalizio – a superb clown and physical comedian – likewise gives her pilgrim Dromio a whimsical, childlike, koala-bear-like rapport with her kind master, which yields to scared, mind-blown stares once things get weird and he starts yelling at him.
In delicious contrast, local Antipholus swaggers around in a flowing blue robe, louche and loose, dripping with drunken sensuousness and prone to sudden violence. Accordingly, Micalizio gives this Dromio a lower voice, a laconic slouch, and much lower expectations of the world (plus a glint of masochistic kink), as if long inured to the narcissism and random beatings of his master.
The whole cast is all-in on the absurdities, fleet and nimble and excited to draw us into the chaos. Moraros and Pryor are infectious in their hilarity as sisters, Moraros makes a rich comedic confection of Adriana’s annoyance, and across several roles, Nye agilely contorts themself into motley shapes and voices, including with a furry puppet.
In all, there’s much to celebrate here. The iambic writhing, mounting, swatting, tripping, fumbling, and mugging in the grass. The random impromptu theater-goer who stumbles upon the madness. Even the specially rented Port-a-Potty. Shakespeare in the park is back, everybody. We made it. Bring your blanket and bottle, and bask.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.