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Writer's Prose Gets in Way of Lively 'Crumbs' Story

September 23, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

"Crumbs From the Table of Joy" is a coming-of-age drama from a young playwright who has not yet come of age. Though she tells a lively story with specificity and a nice dab of surprise, Lynn Nottage tips her hand by overwriting. Innocent of boring the audience at South Coast Repertory, she is guilty of being pleased with the sound of her own sentences.

"Please don't embarrass me with your articulation of regret," is the language of argument in the Crump household, Brooklyn, 1950. If Nottage pounds a little heavily on the dialogue key, her narration is stodgier still. She is defeated ultimately by the device she chooses--her 17-year-old narrator, Ernestine (Karen Malina White), both lives her life and simultaneously narrates it from some unspecified time far in the future, commenting on and sometimes rewriting the action as a writer would in a memoir. We have everything interpreted for us through a writerly sensibility and are not allowed to experience events on our own.

Also, this device cripples the performance of the young actress who must shoulder it; under the direction of Seret Scott, White never finds the right tone between girlish excitement and the fancy thoughts the author has overlaid on her actions. When she goes to the cinema, her passion, we hear about how "in the darkness the theater whispers with anticipation" and how "in the movies, men are heroes--broad-shouldered and impervious to danger." Nice prose. Bad drama.

*

That's a shame because Nottage gets some percolating relationships going in the Crump household. Smack in the middle of the great African American migration from the Deep South to Northeastern cities, Godfrey (Dorian Harewood) moves his two teenage daughters from Pensacola to a basement apartment in Brooklyn. His wife has died and, with vague hopes of a better life, he settles in a largely Jewish neighborhood, where he gets work in a bakery. Godfrey is a blindly devoted follower of Father Devine, a somewhat bizarre charismatic leader who advocated racial harmony and celibacy, even for his married disciples. The liveliness of Harlem, apparently, is just not appropriate for Godfrey, a torn and obviously lost man.

But Harlem comes to Brooklyn, in the form of Lily (Ella Joyce, of TV's "Roc"). Lily is the va-va-va-voom sister of Godfrey's dead wife. In Joyce's alternately vivacious and angry performance, Lily is the most glamorous McCarthy-era Communist this side of Lillian Hellman. She talks of revolution, but the only battle she seems to be fighting is a sartorial one. An obsessively stylish woman, she believes that by out-dressing white women she is scoring a victory for her race. And she naturally fascinates the two girls, Ernestine and her sister Ermina (Susan Patterson). But her drinking and fast living provoke extreme ambivalence in poor Godfrey.

In fact, Lily scares Godfrey right into the arms of another woman, a white German named Gerte (Nancy Harewood) whom he meets on the subway. The household battlefield becomes an infinitely more complicated place as Lily and Gerte battle for the souls of the girls and for Godfrey as well. This battle provides the liveliest chunk of the play.

Just when things are going full-steam, Nottage inserts a puzzling poetic and lame detail; one such touch occurs when the two girls embark on a shoplifting expedition. There are tiny, nagging problems--Ernestine earnestly thinks about something that Lily once said, only Lily never said it, or she said it only in one of Ernestine's fantasy rewrites of reality. On a more trivial note, "I Could Have Danced All Night" plays on the radio upstairs even though "My Fair Lady" didn't open on Broadway until six years after the play is set.

Under the hypnotic spell of Joyce's Lily, the cast creates a lively dynamic, with the exception of Dorian Harewood, whose emotions seem forced. He gives a tense and uncharming performance, making the women's struggle for his heart more perplexing than it should be.

Lynn Nottage shows promise, both as a prose writer and a playwright. She needs to forcibly separate the two skills, I believe, to do full justice to the playwright.

* "Crumbs From the Table of Joy," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesaday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. $18-$39. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Karen Malina White: Ernestine

Dorian Harewood: Godfrey

Susan Patterson: Ermina

Ella Joyce: Lily

Nancy Harewood: Gerte

A South Coast Repertory production. By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Seret Scott. Sets Michael Vaughn Sims. Costumes Susan Denison Geller. Lighting Paulie Jenkins. Sound Garth Hemphill. Production manager Michael Mora.

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