Crumbs From the Table of Joy Credit: Michael Brosilow

One American’s promised land is another’s Egypt. Unless you’re a Native American (in which case you’ve got problems all your own), you and yours came here either to get free or to be sold into slavery. No wonder there’s so little commonality between this country’s white and black people, quite aside from the horrors of racism: Even if it were possible to wave a magic equity wand over the nation, so that everybody suddenly had a fair chance, our narratives would still be diametrically opposed. Perfect inversions of each other, in fact.

Two plays running now at Chicago theaters concern black people doing their best to escape the hell of the white man’s heaven. In an odd bit of synchronicity, both were written by African-American women, both date from the first half of the 1990s, and both are being staged—respectably—by companies that aren’t particularly well-known for their explorations of the black experience.

By far the most successful of the pair is Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs From the Table of Joy, as directed by Tyrone Phillips for Raven Theatre. It’s a memory play, although the memories aren’t Nottage’s. They belong to a teenage black girl named Ernestine Crump, whose dad, Godfrey, goes a little mad when his wife dies. Sometimes in scenes and sometimes in direct address to the audience Ernestine (a glowing Chanell Bell) recounts how Godfrey became so frantically imbued with Father Divine—a 20th-century black preacher who declared himself God—that he left Tennessee for Brooklyn, thinking he’d find Divine’s Jerusalem there. (In a sweetly quixotic touch, Godfrey turns out to be wrong about that. Divine was based in Philadelphia in 1950, when the action of the play unfolds; Brooklyn was merely the home address of a company that manufactured one of his miracle elixirs.) The Crumps change their family name to the Divine-ly inspired “Goodness” and settle into a basement apartment.

Ernestine’s adventures in Brooklyn would amount to little more than a conventionally eccentric coming-of-age story—crying along to Joan Crawford movies with little sister Ermina (a mischievous, endearing Brandi Jiminez Lee), trying to fit in with her citified classmates—if not for two grown women. One is Godfrey’s German-born second wife, Gerte (Emily Tate), who becomes a lightning rod for all of Ernestine’s pain—her mourning, her dislocation, her confused sense of self as a black girl with starry white ambitions. The other is her Aunt Lily. A truly singular creation, both as written by Nottage and embodied by the marvelous Brianna Buckley, Lily shows up and moves in, ostensibly out of a sense of obligation to her dead sister, trailing the scent of a Harlem awakening characterized by bebop and communism, hipster style and bohemian raptures—all of it intermingled with the smell of alcohol on her breath.

Aunt Lily brings a tragic wildness to Crumbs From the Table of Joy, tragic wildness being precisely what Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West lacks. Or, more accurately, renounces. Earnest in tone, folkloric in approach, and ultimately plodding in Chuck Smith’s staging for American Blues Theater, Cleage’s drama takes a fascinating passage from American history and makes it the occasion for a morality play about the nobility of black self-reliance—especially self-reliance among black women—and the treachery of those who would imitate white ways.

We’re in Nicodemus, Kansas, a real community founded by black settlers during Reconstruction. It’s 1898, a full 52 years before Ernestine’s trip to Brooklyn. Fannie Dove, her adopted sister Sophie, and old Miss Leah have formed a family of affinity on a farm the sisters own under the Homestead Act. Wary Sophie (a stalwart Tiffany Oglesby) is busy trying to fend off a frontier version of gentrification, but the real threat sneaks up behind her when the youngest Dove sister, Minnie, returns from Europe to visit Nicodemus in the company of her husband, Frank, a foppish poet with marcelled hair, expensive tastes, and a deep, self-loathing desire to distance himself from all things black.

The battle between the plain, hard-working settlers and the malign, acculturating forces represented by Frank is as unsubtle as Frank’s conk, not only in its general trajectory but in its plot devices. Certain things can be seen coming from very far away on these Kansas plains.

The result is very edifying and—with the exception of a great story Joslyn Jones’s Miss Leah tells about a very unusual apple pie—fairly tedious. It didn’t have to be this way. Frank, for one thing, could be a good deal more complex than he’s permitted to be in Wardell Julius Clark’s performance. At minimum, it might be worth seeing some small hint of the man Minnie says she fell in love with. And then, too, Cleage might’ve acknowledged the contradictions in the Nicodemians’ way of life. They are, after all, living on land taken from Native Americans, just like white folks.   v