A Handful of Crumbs

Karamu offers an arduous journey through a literary rain forest.

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Crumbs From the Table of Joy. Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street. 216-795-7070. Through November 7.
Jessica Rambo (left) and Princess Thomas.
Jessica Rambo (left) and Princess Thomas.
Karamu is one of those theaters that can't bear the strain of success. Every time its season starts cooking with gas, with torchy tap fests and plangent folk plays, some pompous bureaucrat blows out the flame, periodically tossing out the seasoned pros and causing a regression back to sloppy, self-indulgent melodramas such as Crumbs From the Table of Joy.

This coming-of-age story of two small-town adolescent girls from Pensacola, Florida, adjusting to the harsh urban environment of 1950 Brooklyn, weighs on the audience's shoulders like a lead harness.

Lynn Nottage is a playwright desperately in need of a dramaturge, for she likes to toss in everything -- including the kitchen sink. Her play, another in an endless line of Glass Menagerie memory exercises, has approximately forty riveting minutes buried in two and a half hours of overripe poetry and dull social history. Here is proof positive that a college degree can be a dangerous weapon, as Nottage shamelessly overwrites, forging a literary rain forest. Like a precocious grad student, she's eager to show off her breadth of allegiances, cultivating dense foliage out of Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Maya Angelou, and James Baldwin.

First, by way of Morrison, we encounter the Crumb sisters, those Pensacola waifs lost in the travails of the African American migration up north. Their daddy, a widower, is lost in his own false promises: the delusion that Father Divine, the world-famous black evangelist, can lead him out of poverty and loneliness.

In one of the play's false trails, the supposedly barely literate father is shown throughout the play to be writing a barrage of questions to Father Divine. If one manages not to succumb to the self-consciously arty dialogue spoken by the teenage heroine Ernestine, one could surely stay awake through the floozy Communist aunt's boozy self-pity and sexual jealousy.

All is not lost, though: By the second act, there is a rainbow and rejuvenation in Gertie Schulte, a white German immigrant and fellow disciple of Father Divine, who marries the girl's father. Here, as Gert tries to bond with her two teenage stepdaughters, the thick miasma of shrill symbolism gives way to tender, straightforward humanity in scenes of warmth and insight.

The dense forest of this play contains some rare passion flowers, as in Felliniesque fantasies (seen through Ernestine's eyes) of reconciliations that never happen or of her German stepmother suddenly pulling off her housedress to reveal a beaded evening gown as she does a Dietrich rendition of "Falling in Love Again," a crafty device to show a black girl's perspective of all Germans being seductive harlots.

Caroline Jackson-Smith's direction is a study in schizophrenia. There are moments of great tenderness and delicacy, yet more often she's like a coal stoker with a relentless shovel, smashing scenes to smithereens with odd blocking and bland pacing. If she ever earns a place in director's heaven, it will be for her discovery of Robbin Lomax, a first-time actress who, as the tender German hausfrau, has the rich shadows and earth tones of an early Dutch master's work. This would be a remarkable performance for any stage-scarred veteran, but by a neophyte, it ranks somewhere between revelation and miracle.

Tony Sias is far too elegant to suggest the plight of a poor man from the country trying to survive in the big city. As the confused, out-of-place Southerner, he seems more geared for tea at the Ritz than his supposed night shifts spent at the bakery. As the precocious younger sister, Princess Thomas is relentlessly feisty and scrappy, like an overwound mechanical doll.

As the play's hypersensitive Laura-like heroine, Jessica Rambo is visually spectacular. With doe-like sensitivity, her every move is a ballet celebrating emerging womanhood, yet the catch is when she speaks. It's as if she were phonetically reciting the lines of a foreign language, draining the life of every sentiment and making Nottage's purple prose monotonous.

Rebecca Hendricks is slutty and energetic as the hard-living aunt, who struts and sashays like a road company Carmen Jones. She imbues the production with the scent of invigorating dimestore cologne.

Warning: You're going to need a good stiff drink to wash down these crumbs.

Keith A. Joseph can be reached at [email protected].

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