ST. PETERSBURG — The title of Crumbs from the Table of Joy comes from the Langston Hughes' poem Luck.
And while the play at Freefall Theatre is not about luck per se, it deals with the human experience of finding those nuggets of happiness and strength buried in difficult times.
Lynn Nottage's touching memory play is told from the point of view of Ernestine Crump (Alicia Thomas), a teenager who has moved from Pensacola to Brooklyn in 1950 with her father and sister. The family members are mourning the loss of their wife and mother, each grieving in their own way. For Godfrey Crump (Michael Kinsey), it's through the teachings of an evangelist named Father Divine. Younger sister Ermina (Rae Davis) is feisty and angry, ready to fight at the quick. Ernestine copes by focusing on her studies.
As narrator, Thomas moves around the theater framing her recollections with a mix of youthful idealism and mature wit. When she steps back in the scene, she nails the character's timid obedience, layered with imagination and curiosity. It's her coming of age story.
The play, directed by Jacqueline Thompson, has a jazz score that effectively sets the time period. The beats and horns add emphasis to the action. Footage from films of the era, including of jazz clubs and news reels, are cleverly projected onto the set.
While the Crumps adjust to living in the big city in a tiny basement apartment, racial tensions are illustrated. Away from their insulated community in Pensacola, the Crumps have more exposure to white people in Brooklyn. Godfrey makes several references to racial differences with the phrase, "they white."
Ideas get more radical upon the arrival of Lily Ann Green (Trenell Mooring), sister of the girls' mother. She's lived in Harlem, which Ernestine describes as the "promised land." She's a self-proclaimed Communist who claims to be part of a Negro revolution. She drinks, smokes and goes dancing at jazz bars all night long. And she is critical of Godfrey's devotion to Father Divine, who is clearly selling him a bill of goods. Ernestine is fascinated by her.
After the biggest of his many blowups with Lily, Godfrey suddenly shows up married to a German woman he met on the subway. Gerte (Emilee Dupre) is not welcomed by the girls and especially not by Lily. Points about interracial relationships and racial stereotypes emerge through these exchanges.
The barrage of ideas come as fast as the beats of a jazz drum, carried along by witty dialogue and poignant moments. Lily's monologues about the black experience in America are richly layered. Godfrey struggles to do what he thinks is right for "the gals." Gerte grapples with the notion that she'll never be accepted by this family. Ernestine and Ermina grow up, but their futures will be very different. Every character is complex in the way they deal with the trauma of upheaval.
A jazz metaphor describes Ernestine's hopeful journey of self-discovery. Taking the best bits from all of her influences, she keeps riffing through life, the improvisational way we navigate our own paths.
Contact Maggie Duffy at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8572. Follow @maggiedalexis.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy
Runs through April 14 at Freefall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. $25-$37. (727) 498-5205. For showtimes, visit freefalltheatre.com.