Crumbs From the Table of Joy, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. This bittersweet memory play, part of Steppenwolf’s 1996 outreach program, is structurally akin to Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie: Ernestine is an African-American woman reinterpreting her experience as a 17-year-old from Florida who moved to Brooklyn with her widowed father and younger sister. But while Williams’s tragic character Amanda suffers as a result of being uprooted from southern culture, Lynn Nottage’s characters suffer no matter where they are: they discover that, while different from the south, Brooklyn in the 1950s is no promised land for a black family.
Ernestine, a devout escapist through 50s cinema (which featured only white leading ladies), acknowledges throughout the play that her recollections may not be accurate: as in Adrienne Kennedy’s A Movie Star Stars in Neither Black nor White, fantasy becomes a survival skill. Unfortunately, Nottage sometimes allows Ernestine’s talk to become too precious, her memories too neatly resolved. And the real dramatic meat of the play concerns Ernestine’s father and her Aunt Lily, not Ernestine and her sister. Of course, a character like Aunt Lily–brilliantly and hilariously portrayed by E. Faye Butler–can’t help but fill the stage; an outspoken independent thinker who flirts with communism and likes her music, men, and drink, Aunt Lily defies 50s stereotypes of black women with a truth I’ve never seen before in a contemporary play.
Leslie Holland’s fluid directing moves the Crumb family smoothly from scene to scene, and both the cast and design are top-notch. Families should see and discuss this fine production. –Gabrielle S. Kaplan