Hunger And Heaven 

Arizona Theatre Company's Latest Is A Work Of Love And Integrity.

"SOMETIMES A CRUMB falls / From the tables of joy, / Sometimes a bone / Is flung," writes Langston Hughes in his poem "Luck." In 1950 Brooklyn, the Crump family just knows that bone is ready to drop. At least that's what Godfrey, his two girls and his dead wife's sister keep telling themselves in Lynn Nottage's Crumbs from the Table of Joy, Arizona Theatre Company's current production.

The title tells you exactly what this uprooted African-American family from Florida really subsists on. How long can its members wait obediently under the table? Will they ever spring up and snatch something for themselves?

Devastated by his wife's death, Godfrey moves his family to Brooklyn to be closer to Father Divine, his mail-order spiritual leader. Father Divine preaches self-sufficiency, sobriety and, oddly, racial integration but strict separation of the sexes. This is not good news for teen daughters Ernestine and Ermina. "To some people / Love is given," Hughes' poem continues; "To others / Only Heaven." Just as it looks like the girls will have to settle for Heaven, or the glamorous version of it they find at the movies, loves swoops in in the person of their aunt Lily Ann Green.

Sister, as the family calls her, is a smoking, boozing black-power Communist. She's waiting for the workers' revolution to make things better for her, just as Godfrey is waiting for Father Divine to give him comforting answers to the vexing questions about life he keeps scribbling onto little scraps of paper. As one of the characters puts it, they're all waiting for the world to happen to them.

While Godfrey waits for Heaven to come his way, he unexpectedly finds love, too--a white German immigrant named Gerte. To the dismay of the women in his house, Godfrey marries Gerte, and thus begins a daily clash of ideals and expectations.

Nottage has crafted a warm, funny, affecting play that ultimately overcomes the contrivances that burden its first act. It would be nice to see a new play that doesn't force one of its cast members to address the audience with over-lyrical explanations of the characters' backgrounds and motivations. Unfortunately, Nottage has young Ernestine provide a running commentary that initially seems like the usual cheap shortcut. But this tired narrative device becomes richer in the second act, as Ernestine's memories of unpleasant scenes begin to blur with the way she wishes difficult conversations had ended.

Still, Nottage is at her best in the crackling dialog, especially in the confrontations between Sister and Godfrey. And she's created not caricatures but complex characters, all of whom mean well but are mostly incapable of acting on their own.

She is served well by patient director Reggie Montgomery and a fine cast. Erica N. Tazel and Nomsa L. Mlambo are perfect as the teenagers Ernestine and Ermina, girls on the cusp of womanhood, teetering between innocence and worldliness. Alex Morris brings dignity to the role of Godfrey, a man who desperately needs simple responses to his questions. Portia Johnson, as the aunt, creates a weak woman who knows how to look strong, and Sally Nystuen Vahle's Gerte is a weakened woman whose strength hardly anyone is willing to recognize.

Matthew Frey's lighting and J.R. Conklin's sound design provide a deeply layered evocation of time and place, particularly in the opening moments.

Despite the play's initial liabilities, Crumbs from the Table of Joy is a work of love and integrity that knows better than to feed us easy answers.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of Crumbs from the Table of Joy continues Wednesdays through Sundays at various curtain times through November 4 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets range from $22 to $35, with discounts for seniors, students and the military; half-price student rush tickets go on sale 30 minutes before curtain. For information, call 622-2823.

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