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Crumbs From the Table of Joy

Playwright Lynn Nottage

Director Ibn Shabazz talks about Lynn Nottage's play

Lynn Nottage’s play, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, was tossed to director Ibn Shabazz unexpectedly. “We were planning to do another play at the Robeson,” he explains, “but when the county budget for the arts was cut, we needed a play with fewer characters. Lynn Nottage’s play moved up the list!”

Nottage’s work was previously seen this season when Ujima Theatre Company performed her Pulitzer Prize winning play, Ruined, a retelling of Brecht’s Mother Courage, set in a small mining town in Democratic Republic of Congo, during a time of civil war. Years ago, her play, Mud, River, Stone, in which a middle-class African American couple embark on a tumultuous vacation in Africa, was presented at Studio Arena Theatre.

By contrast, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, which takes its title from a poem by Langston Hughes, is an American story, set in the living room of a Brooklyn apartment in 1950, where a family battles for the heart and mind of a 17-year-old girl named Ernestine. “The contestants include the lively and glamorous Aunt Lily, Ernestine’s God-fearing father, and a mysterious German refugee,” says Shabazz. Like Ernestine, the country is on the brink of transition. It’s a “coming of age tale that evokes the poetry of change.”

To be successful, the production depends upon two young actresses. Shabazz enlisted the talents of Buffalo State theater student Germaine Robinson, whose work he knew from the Robeson production of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, and Aitina Fareed Cooke, who happens to be his sister’s daughter.

The cast also includes John Ceasar as their father, a man whose life has been transformed by hearing evangelist Father Divine (a fascinating historical figure who claimed to be God), Debbi Davis as the nonconformist Aunt Lily, and Jane E. Cudmore as the mysterious German refugee. Each role is complex and engaging, providing the actors with plenty of theatrical texture.

“You might think it’s funny,” says Shabazz, whose own pot-boiling and sexually explosive play, Insidious, was a hit at Road Less Traveled this season and will be revived in June, “but one of the things that I like about Crumbs from the Table of Joy is that it is a family drama, with no cursing, that everyone in the family can enjoy together! It is a very good choice for the Robeson.”

To say that it is a traditional family drama, is not to say that staging the play was an easy task.

“There were technical challenges,” says Shabazz. “Lynn Nottage specifies that it should flow and be performed without blackouts or interruptions. There was no way for us to accomplish that in the Robeson space if we wanted to have costume changes or the passage of time. I needed to have some swift breaks in the action to keep it moving.”

Shabazz likes working at the Robeson.

“We are like a family,” he says. “And it is wonderful the way they give opportunities to young African American artists. For these actors to be able to do a play about the African-American experience is so important, and very different from being cast in a classic play, or in a role not really written with an African American actor in mind. Those experiences are great too, but it is not the same.”

“It is also valuable for young performers to work with African-American professionals, and the Robeson provides that experience,” he adds.

Among the most rewarding elements of working on Crumbs from the Table of Joy, reports Shabazz, was the background research.

“It was interesting for the cast to go back to 1950,” he notes. “Younger people may not have heard of Madam C. J. Walker and appliances like the hot comb and products like Dixie Peach, which are referred to in the show. The background information about Father Divine, and even details about Europe in World War II is unfamiliar to them. All of that enriched the experience and gives reality to the play.”

Crumbs from the Table of Joy continues through February 27 in the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue (884-2013).

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