If Ernestine Crump were a Hollywood actress, she would change her name to something suitably alluring.
“Like ‘Sylvie Montgomery,’” she says. “Or ‘Laura Saint Germaine’ — that’s French.”
At 17, on the verge of graduating from high school, Ernestine is given to celluloid dreams and other flights of fancy.
“But don’t you worry yourself,” she says, all teasing practicality. “When I’m onscreen I sure can act very white. That’s why I’m a star.”
In Lynn Nottage’s bittersweet memory play “Crumbs From the Table of Joy,” at Theater Row, the year is 1950. Ernestine (a terrific Shanel Bailey), our narrator, is a recent transplant to Brooklyn, where she lives in a basement apartment with her rigid father, Godfrey (Jason Bowen), and impish sister, Ermina (Malika Samuel). They are a Black family on a largely white block; few of the neighbors will even speak to them.
The death of the girls’ mother was the catalyst for the Crumps’ move north from Florida. Each of them is still undone by grief, perhaps Godfrey most of all. A baker by trade, he is newly sober and celibate, clinging to the teachings of the messianic leader Father Divine, whose portrait hangs on the living room wall. (The set is by Brendan Gonzales Boston.)
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Asceticism is anathema to the girls’ glamorous Aunt Lily (Sharina Martin), their mother’s sister, who shows up unexpected from Harlem one day. Luggage in tow, flask ever-present, she announces that her own mother has asked her to take care of the girls.
“She don’t think it’s proper that a man be living alone with his daughters once they sprung bosom,” Lily says, vividly.
And that’s that, despite how objectionable Godfrey finds Lily’s fervent Communism and how disconcerting he finds her sexual availability.
In Colette Robert’s quiet, mostly sure-handed production for Keen Company, “Crumbs From the Table of Joy” is a pleasure for several reasons: rarity, for one, this being the play’s first New York revival since its premiere in 1995.
There’s also the fun of spotting — in a work that feels, improbable as it sounds, like a cousin to Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” — glimmers of plays to come in Nottage’s oeuvre. Ernestine’s silver-screen fantasies bring to mind the satire “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” (2011), about a trailblazing Black actress in Golden Age Hollywood. And Ernestine’s dressmaker’s dummy, draped with her graduation gown in progress, prefigures “Intimate Apparel” (2003).
That dress, prim and white with lace at the neckline, is as much an emblem of achievement and possibility as Lily’s elegant tailored skirt suit — though Lily’s outfit also serves as an armor of bravado over dented dreams. (Costumes are by Johanna Pan.) A revolutionary at heart, and a life-altering inspiration to Ernestine, Lily is a determined counterpoint to the version of Black womanhood that the cautious Godfrey tries to instill in his daughters: chaste, sober, grateful and with only the tamest of ambitions.
Lily, alas, doesn’t have the necessary resonance in this production. There’s a hollowness to Martin’s interpretation that unbalances the otherwise strong ensemble and the dynamics of the Crump household, which Godfrey throws into turmoil when he abruptly remarries.
Like Father Divine, he chooses a white woman — Gerte (Natalia Payne, excellent), who lived through the war in her native Germany. Their first meeting, by chance, on the subway, is intensely fraught: she, lost, hungry and alone; he, terrified to engage because, as he has told his daughters more than once, “I don’t want to wind up like them Scottsboro boys.”
Such are the clamorous forces shaping Ernestine’s coming-of-age. In the middle of the 20th century, in a corner of the big city, she’s figuring out who she wants to be.
Crumbs From the Table of Joy
Through April 1 at Theater Row, Manhattan; keencompany.org. Running time: 2 hours.