Crumbs from the Table of Joy" is the first show Producing Artistic Director Benny Sato Ambush has directed at TheatreVirginia. With this show, he lives up to his reputation as a skillful and innovative director.
That's a good thing because the play runs almost three hours. Though Lynn Nottage's dialogue is intensely funny and undeniably beautiful, it is often redundant. But Ambush never takes his foot off the pedal and three hours pass before you know it.
The story takes place in 1950. After his wife dies, Godfrey Crump (Johnny Lee Davenport) becomes enamored with the charismatic teachings of Father Divine and moves his family from Florida to Brooklyn in search of a better life. Davenport gives a powerful performance as a man so full of pain and uncertainty that he obsessively scribbles questions to Father Divine on scraps of paper and stuffs them into boxes.
Godfrey's two daughters, Ernestine (Nadiya S. Dorsey) and Ermina (Chauntee Schuler), are less enthusiastic about Father Divine. They're busy dealing with the trials of living in a big city: "[The city girls] laughed at us the first day of school," one says, "with our country braids and simple dresses my mommy had sewn."
Things become even more confusing for the girls when Lily (Gwendolyn Mulamba), their mother's sister, arrives uninvited. She's fun-loving, sexually liberated, and loudly proclaims that's she's a Communist. She even smokes. Most intriguing to the girls, she's been to Harlem. According to Ernestine, "for us country folk that is the equivalent of reaching the Promised Land."
When Godrey introduces Gerte (Ronda Hewitt), a blonde German immigrant, to the family, life at home becomes even more awkward and unstable. Later, Hewitt has a wonderful scene in which she unexpectedly climbs upon a banquet table piled with food awaiting the arrival of Father Divine.
Throughout the play, Ernestine charmingly addresses narration to the audience and sets up flights of fancy that occur only in her imagination. This is a coming-of-age story but Ernestine already seems like a grown woman in the opening scenes of the play. Because of this, she recedes from the play as the older actors dominate the action.
Though there is a political undercurrent in this play, Nottage never takes the easy way out. In some respects, this play is about the migration of African-Americans from the South to the big Northern cities after World War II. Though they might have escaped Jim Crow, they nonetheless continued to encounter both prejudice and economic hardship in the North.
In the background, the Brooklyn Bridge towers over Richard Crowell's gorgeous semirealistic set. Victor En Yu Tan's lighting is especially effective in creating the illusion that the play is occurring out of Ernestine's memory.
There's a dazzling moment just before the final monologue that propels Ernestine into her future. Using sound, lights and movement, and by accentuating the rhythm in Ernestine's dialogue, Ambush synthesizes the kind of magic that distinguishes live theater from television and film. He creates anticipation for more such moments in TheatreVirginia's future.
"Crumbs from the Table of Joy" runs through March 16 at TheatreVirginia, 2800 Grove Ave. Tickets cost $28-$36. Call 353-6161.
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