Table's Tops

Crumbs From the Table of Joy is far more insightful and entertaining than the archetypal African-American history play. I expected a wistful, nostalgic comedy, but Lynn Nottage's rarely sentimental story -- which Arizona Theatre Company opened at the Herberger last week -- is a complex memory play that overcomes its precious title. Rather than the usual bottomless suffering relieved by occasional historical references, Crumbs is an accessible, sometimes astonishing yarn peopled by fully formed folks with good stories to tell.

Set in late 1950s Brooklyn, the story follows recently widowed Godfrey Crump, a black man who has relocated his two young daughters from their Florida home after the death of their mother. He wants them to have a better life and so has embraced the teachings of Father Divine, a dodgy preacher whose mail-order religion promises to heal Godfrey's grief and help him parent his teenage girls.

Enter Lily Ann, Godfrey's sister-in-law and former flame. She espouses Communism and sexual freedom, and has loudly devoted her life to the revolution against racial discrimination. When she attempts to rekindle her romance with Godfrey, he storms out and marries the first woman he meets: Gerte, a white German émigré whose memories of Nazi Germany fill the family's basement apartment.

Nottage sees her characters as fully as she recalls history. Her references to Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy are spoken by people who remain more important to the story than the history lessons they deliver. I cared more about Lily Ann than about whether her Communist speeches sounded sincere or accurate, because those speeches were wedged between stirring memories of Lily's early life as "just another Negro woman."

As performed by Portia Johnson, Lily Ann is anything but. Surrounded by an excellent cast, she stands out as an amalgam of insinuating stares, swinging limbs and a trumpet's blare of a voice. She owns every scene she appears in, even those opposite Sally Nystuen Vahle, whose role has the greatest range. Vahle's Gerte, though relentlessly smudged and dispirited, comes alive in several fantasy sequences, transformed from a frau to a lusty, drunken Marlene Dietrich impersonator.

The story shifts from drama to comedy, from fantasy to reality with great speed and -- thanks to the tall talents of director Reggie Montgomery -- great style. Surprises abound as 17-year-old Ernestine recounts her life in Brooklyn: Dreary people suddenly rip off their clothes and begin dancing; bickering relatives drink and dance in the middle of a quarrel. These speedy transformations are helped along by a crafty crew of designers. Donald Eastman's set is almost as exciting as the performers who tread it. Its walls swing in and out of place to offer representational views of the Crumps' cramped living quarters and beyond. The perfect marriage of sound tricks and lightning-quick lighting cues, courtesy of J.R. Conklin and Matthew Frey, take us where Eastman can't: A flickering shaft of light and a scratchy voice track suggest a movie house; a row of bare bulbs and the rattle of oncoming cars plunge us into a dank Manhattan subway tube.

If there's a problem with Crumbs, it's that there's so much of it. Nottage tackles too many issues -- Communism, racism, the politics of religion, interracial marriage, anti-German sentiment -- and delivers several more scenes than are necessary to make her points. The result is an occasionally scattered story for which I felt I needed a scorecard: Which issue are we addressing now? Likewise, the characters -- each of them entertaining in his or her own right -- tend to stay too long. (Once Lily is made to choose between her convictions and her passion, she's superfluous; yet she lingers. Why?) But Nottage's writing is so expressive, her language so articulate, that it's possible to forgive the occasional bloated scene.

In her entrance speech, Lily Ann announces that "memories need maintenance." By infusing history with personal stories, Lily's creator has filled a stage with recollections that shake up a formula without abandoning its virtues.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela