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Bold as Sass

Klieg-Light Central Performance Elevates Otherwise Talky Play

THESE ARMS OF MINE: Kelly Taffe shows Amina S. Robertson some love.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/17/2006

Crumbs From The Table Of Joy

By Lynn Nottage

At Center Stage through June 11

When Aunt Lily bursts through the door of the basement apartment in Brooklyn in 1950, everything changes for the Crump family. The two teenaged daughters, Ernestine and Ermina, and their widowed father, Godfrey, have rarely ventured outside except to school and work since the culture shock of their recent move from the small-town South to New York. They’ve been living only half-awake thanks to Godfrey’s devotion to Father Divine’s fundamentalist religious sect. But when the hip-wiggling, cigarette-smoking, revolution-spouting, sass-talking Lily struts in, it’s like an alarm clock goes off.

Lily wakes up not only the Crump family but also Lynn Nottage’s play Crumbs From the Table of Joy. In its opening scenes, the show is more a static poetry reading than an actual drama, with many literary reminiscences by Ernestine and very little real-time action. This sleepy beginning demonstrates the dangers of telling things onstage rather than showing them and of imitating Ntozake Shange’s impossible-to-duplicate 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. But when Lily arrives, Nottage’s writing perks up—along with her characters.

Kelly Taffe’s Lily is one of the most riveting characters to hit a Baltimore stage in some time. A big woman with a generous figure in a stylish purple jacket and skirt, Taffe exerts such raw magnetism that her nieces, who don’t even remember her from Florida, are soon waiting on Lily hand and foot and eagerly waiting for the next outrageous thing she might say. Punctuated with a swing of the hip and a roll of the eyes, she aims zingers at white bosses and black preachers and frankly confesses her fondness for a good drink and a stiff man.

A black woman who speaks her mind about capitalism, religion, and sex is a rarity in 1950, four years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and a godsend for a smart, stifled high-school senior like Ernestine. But from the beginning you can sense that there’s something not quite right about Lily. If she’s a noted Harlem intellectual, as she claims, why does she show up on their door with suitcases in hand? If she’s so devoted to the memory of her dear sister—Godfrey’s ex-wife—why does she keep making suggestive references to a romantic fling with Godfrey back in Florida? And if she’s such an exemplar of the liberated black woman, why does she keep pouring herself drinks of bourbon?

These contradictions are what make Lily so fascinating, and Taffe’s great performance reveals not only the bold iconoclast on the exterior but also the jobless, man-less, insecure woman in the interior. It’s up to Ernestine to decide which of Lily’s traits she should emulate and which she should leave alone. Unfortunately, she often weighs these choices in monologues directly addressed to the audience rather than in dramatic dialogue with her sister (Edwina Findley) or with Lily.

Another bombshell goes off when another unexpected woman walks through the apartment door. This time the woman is Gerte, a World War II German refugee with blond braids pinned atop her head. Godfrey had stomped off after a big fight with Lily, and now that he has returned three days later, he announces that he has married this German woman that he met on the subway. Lily and her two nieces, who had been so vocally opposed to segregation, are distinctly displeased by this example of integration. To the usual challenges of becoming a stepmother, Gerte faces the additional hurdles of race and a romantic rival in the form of her own sister-in-law.

Whenever Nottage allows her characters to push and pull at each other through dialogue and action, her play crackles with energy. Far too often, though, she puts the brakes on that action and allows Ernestine to muse on her adolescence in poetic soliloquies. It doesn’t help that Ernestine, the putative protagonist, is the least developed character in the show or that actress Amina S. Robinson gives the least interesting performance. Nor does it help that Center Stage subverts the show’s immediacy with one of its silly, high-concept set designs—an ornate proscenium arch tilted at an odd angle and gazed upon by two old-fashioned movie projectors.

But when the three adults tangle onstage, the sparks fly. Patricia Ageheim is terrific as Gerte, who is far less innocent than she first appears, and so is LeLand Gantt as Godfrey, who is not as strait-laced as he appears. They may not be as smart or as entertaining as Lily, but we gradually realize that their long-term prospects are better. For the short-term, though, there’s no better company in a Baltimore theater than Taffe’s Lily.

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