(l to r) Brandi Jiminez Lee, Brianna Buckley and Chanell Bell in Raven Theatre’s ‘Crumbs From the Table of Joy.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Becky Sarwate
Actress Brianna Buckley absolutely steals the show in Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Raven Theatre’s first offering of its 2018-2019 season. Playing feisty feminist and socialist Lily Anne Greene, an existentially disappointed black woman living in 1950 New York City, Ms. Buckley oozes charisma, sex appeal and internal conflict all over the theater’s East Stage.
Godfrey Crump (Terence Sims) is a recent widower and former atheist looking for any escape from grief, literally, geographically. Pain and the promise of financial opportunity lead him to uproot his two daughters, Ernestine (Chanell Bell) and Ermina (Brandi Jiminez Lee), from their home in Pensacola, Florida, and head to the Big Apple. But it’s the prospect of a longer journey into the kingdom of heaven (and an unspoken wish to be reunited with his dead wife) that entices Godfrey to find hope on the back of Father Devine’s mail-order tonic bottle, shipped from Brooklyn.
The script from two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage (2009’s Ruined and 2017’s Sweat) also leaves open the distinct and tantalizing possibility that his wife’s ghost isn’t the only spirit Godfrey is fleeing. Lily, sister of the deceased, makes a reappearance on the relocated Crump doorstep that leaves everyone breathless. Loud, unabashed and full-on woke, in an era when Jim Crow laws and separate-but-equal instructed African-Americans to “know their place,” Lily is unafraid to take up space and speak her mind. For the damaged Crump family, this is both enticing and threatening.
The unvoiced dialogue between Godfrey and Lily is suggestive of a more complicated and intertwined past between the two. Their immediate and still-palpable chemistry sends Godfrey fleeing in yet another direction — right into the chaste arms of Gerte (Emily Tate), a recent white, German immigrant that Godfrey meets on the subway. Charmed by her submissiveness and willingness to follow the teachings of the never-seen Father Devine, Godfrey impulsively marries Gerte and installs her in his crowded and emotionally charged Brooklyn basement flat.
Within the cramped rooms of the Crump apartment, religious, racial and sexual tensions flare as Ernestine prepares to graduate high school and transition to adulthood. While all of the cast members acquit themselves well and present the audience with a complicated and authentic slice of Eisenhower-era Americana, it is Ms. Buckley who completely commands our rapt attention.
“As a theatre known for producing the classics of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, it seems only fitting to include Lynn’s voice among these greats,” notes Raven Theatre Artistic Director Cody Estle about her decision to produce Ms. Nottage’s 1995 script.
At first consideration, Ms. Estle’s connection of the three playwrights felt to me like an attempt at explicative shoehorning. What on earth does the work of a Generation X black, female artist have to do with the Southern Gothic and Red Scare themes of dead, white men? After seeing this production, however, the connection makes perfect sense.
Ms. Buckley infuses Lily with lusty, desperate yearnings that evoke a northern, industrial Maggie a la Mr. Williams’ celebrated Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. And Mr. Sims’ Godfrey has more than a little depressed and disillusioned Willy Loman in him as he trudges back and forth from his overnight job at a bakery, unable to give his growing daughters more from his labor than a few leftover cookies.
The production features scenic design by Arnel Sancianco and sound design by Matt Test that turn the stage into a bustling corner of authentic, working-class Brooklyn in the mid-20th Century. The coordinated effort required to make New York City another character in this drama is highly successful.
I end, however, where I began: enamored with the work of Ms. Buckley. Her Lily is a complicated woman deserving of a happy ending, even as it’s clear from her first stage entrance that won’t be possible. Lily is both free of and trapped by the limitations society presses upon her gender and race. Brianna Buckley’s nuanced and pained portrayal is a gift to Ms. Nottage’s play and audiences fortunate enough to see her performance.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy
6157 N Clark, Chicago
Through November 18
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.