Brooklyn Legends is proud to salute Lynn Nottage.
For two decades, Pulitzer-prize winning author Lynn Nottage has written plays that examine racial and social justice issues. Growing up, she was deeply impacted by two very strong women: her grandmother, who was a master story-teller, and her mother, who was a political activist during the civil rights and feminist movements.
Lynn’s journey as a writer began at the kitchen table in her family home in Brooklyn. She would arrive from school to find her grandmother and mother surrounded by women from the neighborhood who shared stories about their daily experiences. During this time, America was in the midst of the civil rights movement and the world watched the abysmal treatment of people of African and Caribbean descent. These women made the decision to pursue their careers in spite of these challenges and their powerful stories impacted her decision to become a ‘writer, theatremaker and activist.’
Lynn’s career as a playwright has received national, and international, acclaim. She has written nine plays, most recently By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (2011) and Ruined (2008).
Vera Stark enjoyed an extended run Off-Broadway, before premiering in Los Angeles and Chicago. Ruined, the Pulitzer Prize winning play which premiered in New York City, received ten awards in addition to the Pulitzer Prize. Ruined made its international debut in London and, eventually, would be produced in Cambodia, Chad, The Caribbean, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Germany. Lynn’s other plays include: Fabulation (2004), Intimate Apparel (2003), Las Meninas (2002), Mud, River, Stone (1998), Por’Knockers (1996), Crumbs From The Table Of Joy (1995) and Poof (1993).
Typically, when I write a post I will focus on many accomplishments of a particular Brooklyn Legend. However, given the breadth of Lynn’s work, I will share my impressions of the play that impacted me the most – Crumbs From The Table Of Joy, which is considered to be one of her most popular. I was first drawn to the provocative title of the play. My friends will often comment on my tendency to look for the hidden meaning in things. My curiosity was piqued. I asked myself three questions:
- Is this another play where the lead character is driven to accept (due to lack of knowledge or accessibility) something that is not sufficient or good enough?
- If throughout the play, the lead character does settle for less, is this a strategic decision?
- Is my interpretation of “less” symptomatic of the way things are at this point in history?
Crumbs From The Table Of Joy is set in the 1950s. The main character, Godfrey Crump, recently lost his wife and is left with two teenage daughters to raise: Ernestine, who will soon graduate from high school and Ermina, her younger sister. The story is really told through Ernestine’s eyes but Godfrey is an unmistakable force throughout. Feeling alone and overwhelmed after his wife’s death, he seeks guidance from Father Divine, a leading religious figure of the day and leader of the Peace Mission Movement.
Godfrey corresponds with Father Divine through the mail. He orders tonics to calm his nerves and scriptures to calm his soul. Each package arrives with a postmark from Brooklyn, New York, which leads him to conclude the Peace Mission is also headquartered there. Desiring to be closer to Father Divine, and recognizing his need for help in raising his girls, he uproots his family from their home in Pensacola, Florida, and moves them into a dimly lit, basement apartment in Brooklyn, New York. I think that we can each imagine the fear, shock and anger (which I am throwing into the mix) Ernestine and Ermina feel when they leave their home, and their mother’s remains, without warning. His daughters slowly adapt to their new life in Brooklyn, despite the manner in which their school peers make fun of how they dress and speak. However, the manner in which they adapt to their father’s new religion proves to be much more difficult.
Shortly after moving to Brooklyn, Lily, their mother’s sister, moves in with them. She announces her presence as the fulfillment of a promise to her sister to look after her daughters should the need arise. Lily is cosmopolitan and a sharp dresser. To Ernestine and Ermina, she is the embodiment of what all sophisticated women from Harlem are like. Over time they are quite taken with her. Godfrey is quickly troubled by Lily’s pursuit of freedom of expression, alcohol, music, cigarettes and sex. She is the opposite of everything he is trying to instill in them.
Lily is expressive and opinionated, traits Ernestine quickly embraces, and in her child-like manner she tries to emulate. Godfrey discovers Lily’s views are behind an essay Ernestine writes for school where she speaks out against the treatment of workers and denounces the discrimination they face. Her new-found freedom of expression proves to be contentious, resulting in Godfrey’s plea to his daughter to apologize for her transgression. In his eyes Ernestine got it all wrong, just as her teacher said. Remember this play is set in the 1950s. During this time America is dealing with Jim Crow laws, which were designed to prevent people of African descent, especially women, from speaking out and challenging the manner in which they were denied access to education, employment, housing and the voting.
Lily also loves to listen to music, sing and dance. She cannot understand why the radio is hardly ever on. Ernestine and Ermina are forced to listen to laughter that traveled from their neighbors’ apartments in the evening as they enjoyed the popular shows of the day. Their repeated pleas to their father to turn on the radio are met with blank stares, harsh admonishment or hand-written notes that are stored in boxes for safe-keeping until the day he would meet Father Divine.
Until that day arrives, Godfrey is determined to temper the girl’s desire to enjoy life, with his oppressive treatment born out of his desire to shield them from life’s temptations and to please Father Divine. This included changing their names. Ernestine was Darling Angel and Ermina was Devout Mary. When they go to church at the Mission, they wear starched white “pinafore” dresses with a large “V” emblazed on their chests. The “V” stood for virtue, victory and virginity.
Life continued in this manner with small skirmishes between Godfrey and Lily and Godfrey and his daughters. The play also reveals a prior intimate relationship between Godfrey and Lily which eventually reaches a tipping point. An argument ensues and Godfrey storms out of the apartment. He returns a few days later with a new wife he meets on the subway, Gerte, an immigrant from Germany trying to find Pennsylvania Station. With Gerte’s arrival, Lily feels even more displaced and eventually leaves. She tells her nieces that she is going back to Harlem to re-join the revolution and the fight against racial injustice.
Godfrey and Gerte do their best to maintain provide the girls with a stable home life. However, once Ernestine graduates from high school things change. One day Godfrey comes home and proudly announces he secured a job for her in the bakery where he works. She is grateful but informs him that her heart is elsewhere. Lily’s talk of the revolution has inspired Ernestine to follow in her footsteps. She leaves home and moves to Harlem where she hopes to meet up with her aunt and join her cause
In the end, Ernestine never sees Lily again, but she eventually finds her place in the world. But equally important, for the first time in her life, she is in control of her destiny. She is able to make decisions, experience life and make her own way in the world. But she does not desert her family. She marries a man who shares her commitment to making a difference in the world. Although her life is not perfect, she eventually finds the things that give her joy. Here is a scene from the play
This is an abbreviated synopsis of this play, for there are many hidden meanings. If you would like to know more about this or Lynn’s many other plays, please click here. Now I am back to my three questions.
- My answer to question #1 – I absolutely feel that Godfrey, due to the limitations of the day, was forced to accept the “crumbs” of life that came his way. He was trying to make his way after the death of his life partner, during one of the most turbulent periods in America’s history. Decades of oppression, and being forced to live differently as a result of Jim Crow laws, stripped away any chance he had to feel empowered.
- My answer to question #2 – This may come as a shock but, on some level, I can see the strategy behind Godfrey’s decision. Albeit abrupt, he made a plan and stuck to it. He left Florida in search of spiritual guidance and a new life for Ernestine and Ermina. He did not get “buy-in” but he certainly thought about it and went about making a plan to achieve his goal. The move exposed them to a new way of life, one they might not have experienced in Florida. Through Lily, they would understand the far-reaching effects discrimination had. This exposure propelled Ernestine to leave home in search of a cause that she, like her father, believed in.
- My answer to question #3 – For me, “less” really is not a deal breaker. It was truly the best that he could do at the time. In watching my own parents and grandparents navigate their way though the world, and looking at some of the challenges I have encountered, I have come to realize that we each do the very best that we can at the time.
Brooklyn Legends is extremely proud to salute Lynn for her wonderful achievements. We will be sure to provide updates on Lynn’s work.
Lynn Nottage – Writer, Theatermaker, Activist – http://www.lynnnottage.com
A talk with the playwright: Lynn Nottage – http://www.ket.org/americanshorts/poof/nottage.htm
Crumbs From the Table of Joy and Other Plays by Lynn Nottage
Lynn Nottage – nydailynews.com/entertainment
Lynn with the Outer Critics Award – www.playbill.com
Photo of the Crump family at the Peace Mission Movement – http://www.johnnyleedavenport.com
Banner for the play Crumbs from the Table of Joy courtesy of the Longstreet Theatre
Video from the play is from The Paul Robeson Theater, Buffalo, NY
Photo of the cast, courtesy of The Examiner