K-State’s Purple Masque Theater in East Stadium is haunted by a noisy ghost named Nick. It was, last Friday night, overheated, but then it almost always is. The small theater, with four rows of seating on three sides of its thrust stage, was sold-out, and so I ended up at the end of the back row, essentially behind the action. And this to see an early play by Lynn Nottage, a playwright about whose work I have mixed feelings.
And I still had a terrific time in the theater that night. This Ebony Theater production was, as is almost always the case with plays put on by this company, well-cast, well-rehearsed and timed (by director Dillon G. Artzer), and performed with energy, talent, and discipline. And while the play itself, “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” has its weaknesses, it does feature strong characters, some effective comedy, and a bit of memorable visual business in its second act.
The characters, living in New York City after the Second World War, have zeal. But life has provided them only unsatisfactory ways to express their voraciousness. For example, widower Godfrey Crump (Eric Brown) has brought his two teenaged daughters, Ernistine (Nahshon Ruffin) and Ermina (Da´Ja Bresette) out of the rural South, following a broadcast summons by Father Divine.
But Godfrey finds it difficult to get at what he is supposed to do to serve the Peace Mission, the historic Divine’s cult-like movement. Dad requires all his female dependents to honor the Sabbath—no radio on Sundays, for example—and he makes hundreds of notes of specific questions he wants his leader to answer. But he gets no opportunity to ask them, and the pieces of paper on which they are written pile up around the front room until they are made into confetti in a cathartic late scene.
Lily (Alex Gaines) comes to stay with the Crumps, supposedly to help raise her late sister’s children. But the truth is that this announced Communist seems to need to be supported as she makes her way through men and liquor bottles. Unhappy, she seems to despise her family’s way of life, but she will only go out when her trendy suit is back from the cleaners.
When she kisses Godfrey, he runs off to the subway to clear his head, meets a dispossessed German woman (Ellyn Calvert), and marries her almost immediately. This causes problems for the couple in racist New York and in his home, where the Crump girls and their aunt are scandalized by the marriage.
The events and circumstances are narrated by Ernistine who sometimes falls into mimicry of her father—one passage of this is done in unison with him and is one of the production’s rewarding moments. Ernistine also sets the cast off into brief dramatizations of absurd developments (like Gerte and Lily dancing the Rumba together) which she herself has only imagined.
All the characters are well-cast and all the actors have good ideas about their parts. But surely Ruffin’s timing and comic sense deserve special mention, and Bresette shows exactly how tightly wound fourteen-year-old girls behave.
Rebekah Priebe’s costumes and Kat Wilson’s lighting helped to give the play an attractive finish. If the whole doesn’t really mean much, that’s Nottage’s fault. The K-State production was as fair and free and effective as any the text is likely to get.