Black and Red

If you think of history as a big bowl of Neapolitan ice cream--and I do, all the time--then it's funny how journalists and scholars become anal-retentive malt-shop clerks, slicing up the parallel layers and serving them in separate containers. Epochs, movements, controversies, regimes, and ideologies all melted into each other in any decade of the 20th century you choose to examine. Yet we rarely catch the overlap. When was the last time you saw a play about African-American Communists after World War II? They were small in number, but a passionate group that attempted to persuade civil rights leaders to fold Marxist rhetoric into the cause. Or how about the urban prejudice German immigrants faced in America in the '40s? These people fled the Nazi regime in their native country only to be smeared with it by association (and accent) over here, often by fellow minorities.

Young playwright and screenwriter Lynn Nottage has hand-packed these historical moments and many more into her luminous 1995 period piece, currently enjoying a simply superb production at Dallas Theater Center as the kickoff to its 2000-2001 season. Seamlessly cast and delivered with sly humor and angry tears, Crumbs from the Table of Joy will likely draw hordes of folks who don't often attend the theater, so grab your tickets while they're available.

We commentators have a tendency to balkanize writers, and so Nottage has been compared often to literary lioness Lorraine Hansberry--fairly so, since there is as much urban grit and family conflict in the latter's A Raisin in the Sun as exists in Crumbs. To a lesser (and less accurate) extent Nottage has also been compared to Suzan Lori Parks, the gestaltist who breaks up history into primitive theatrical components. But if I'm going to be most appropriate in my comparisons, this show reminds me, in form if not content, of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. In Nottage's script, you have a young narrator named Ernestine (Dallas native Erica N. Tazel) who longs to escape from the 1950's claustrophobic family she also clearly loves--father Godfrey (Alex Morris), aunt Lily (Portia L. Johnson), and little sister Ermina (Nomsa L. Mlambo). Very much like Williams' Tom Wingfield, she addresses us directly, stops the action to comment bittersweetly, leaps back and forth in time, and becomes engrossed in the fantasies of the way she wanted a situation to work out.

In Ernestine's case, she is a Southerner who's been transplanted to Brooklyn by her restless poppa after momma's premature death. He is a follower of the real-life Father Divine, who in Harlem and Philadelphia set up his International Peace Missions where austere principles--chastity, hard labor, purity of thought, sobriety--were practiced by the devoted with the fervor of Tibetan monks. Ernestine and Ermina not only have to ward off Father Divine's long-distance intrusion into their lives (he had the habit of renaming his disciples' children, and when the aghast Ermina discovers her new handle, she demands, "What kind of a man will want to go out with a woman named 'Devout Mary?!'"), they also must deal with being hicks among their neighbors. There are two more interruptions in the form of very different women: Godfrey's new wife, Gerte (Kitchen Dog co-founder Sally Nyusten Vahle, making a solid homecoming impression while on loan from California), a shy and domestic German woman whom Godfrey decides, on a whim, to marry, and Aunt Lily, a sexy, foul-mouthed devotee of Karl Marx who nurses an alcohol problem.

As you can see, the stew pot of Crumbs from the Table of Joy overflows with dramatic complications, but because the playwright and director Reggie Montgomery maintain their grip on the way these cultures and ideologies chafe, we don't mind licking our fingers to savor every drop. Godfrey loathes Lily's political affiliations and rages when they find their way into one of Ernestine's term papers. She mocks Father Divine and religion in general, and everyone onstage but Godfrey has a hard time looking at Gerte's white face within the same suffocating four walls in which they live. ("Are you one of them Jew-hating Germans?" Ermina wonders spitefully at the kitchen table). The show doesn't feel crowded with ideas, because they are reflected pristinely by the embattled relationships themselves. In terms of mutual antipathies, the personal and the political are always competing to take primary motivation.

When director Montgomery introduced the actors to the roles during rehearsals, the blind date became a lifelong, adoring marriage--at least, for as long as these characters live on the Kalita Humphreys stage. As Ernestine, a 15-year-old who wants more after graduation than to work in the bake shop alongside her father, Erica N. Tazel expresses her lines with lovely clarity and simplicity. Dallasite Nomsa L. Mlambo makes a hilarious and nicely detailed trek from childhood through adolescence; she'd just as soon pick a playground fight as wink flirtatiously at a boy. Portia L. Johnson has the grandest, most flamboyant role as the embittered intellectual Aunt Lily, and she does threaten on occasion to devour her fellow cast members when she strides, glaring in red high heels, across the boards. But Johnson has inerrant instincts about when to make a moment comic, when to make it tragic, and when to let her face slide, heavy with both. She's a knockout who doesn't have to work nearly as hard as she sometimes does. In keeping with a casual spirit, director Reggie Montgomery doesn't let us be overwhelmed by all the crises; beautifully, they register as big enough to start a world war, but small enough to kindle a kitchen spat.