Sunday, August 10, 2014

Crumbs from the Table of Joy—Serendipity Players—Vancouver, WA


Life…Happens
This play by Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Lynn Nottage, is playing at Clark College’s Decker Theatre, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way.  It is directed by Tony Broom (Serendipity’s Artistic Director) and runs through August 24th.  For more information go to their site at www.serendipityplayers.org or call 360-834-3588.

If you could sum up this play in one sentence, it might be, on the way to her high school graduation…life happened.  It is assumedly a reflection of the author’s teen years with her family during the early 1950’s in Brooklyn, NY.  Her alter-ego, Ernestine (Elena Mack), is a senior in high school and preparing for graduation.  She lives in her small apartment with her younger sister, Ermina (Kiara Gaulding) and her Dad, Godfrey (Phillip Bowles), a baker, a God-fearing man and a follower of Father Divine.

Into their cramped lives appears their Aunt, Lily (Dee Harris), apparently planning on an extended stay.  Her character is somewhat south of a high-classed call girl and extremely left (an avowed Communist, in fact) in her political views.  This cramped, confined, Christian household is no atmosphere to raise two, budding girls, who are rudely being jolted into the seamier side of life.  The code of the father is the three V’s, “Virtue, Victory & Virginity.”  But, “ain’t necessarily so,” with Auntie.

And, if this wasn’t enough to shake the proverbial apple tree, Godfrey meets a stranger on the street, Gerte (Kate Lacey) and promptly marries her.  She is an immigrant from Germany and white, or a “cracker,” and the Crump family is black, or “colored,” as the times would testify to.  And, keep in mind, this is 1950’s, just after WWII and the defeat of the German Nazis.  So now, in one household, we have a staunch Christian; a revolutionary Communist, the beginnings of a black power movement; and a white immigrant from a county we just defeated in a war.  What a way to enter the “real” world for young, impressionable girls.

The story is not so much about the day-to-day routines of a family but of the cultural dynamics that the family is faced with because of the times.  A little background might be in order here.  Communism was an acceptable alternative to the 30’s depression in America.
The famous Group Theatre had many members that had leftist leanings.  And Paul Robeson, the great black actor/singer from that period, joined the Communist Party because he felt they had a more equable view of people of his Race.  Also, it was the Nazis who were the bad guys during the War, not the German people.  And religion was an important aspect of Black culture.  So, a logjam in the Crump home.

Dr. King was just beginning his campaign in the South against segregation; the young, Emmett Till, was beaten to death because he whistled at a white woman; the brave, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman; and Lorraine Hansberry had yet to write her great play about the explosive dynamics within a black family, Raison in the Sun.  This was the turbulent, transitional time of this true tale.  And it has power in its telling, as the lead character flips from monologues in the present, to express her views and desires at the time, to painful recollections of the past.  And the characters are allowed to breathe on their own, neither presenting us with a totally dark or pure person but ones that are all shades of gray.

Broom’s direction takes us easily from one time frame or place to another with simplicity in staging.  And he has done a good job of leading the actors through the complicated series of feelings that the play presents.  A good choice for a play, letting us examine the times before “…the changing,” the 60’s.

Mack does very well in the demanding role of the storyteller.  The frustrations, doubts and discoveries show plainly in the face of this shy, curious girl.  I would recommend, though, at times, she should be aware of diction and volume, as a few of her lines tended to get lost because of this lack.  Bowles, as the patriarch of the family, certainly has the enthusiasm that is appropriate for the role, but he is a bit stiff, at times, and seemed to have occasional trouble with lines, possibly opening-night jitters.

Gaulding, as the youngest daughter, is wonderful.  She has the right zest for the role, dealing with conflicting emotions and trying to find her own place in the world.  She is pretty, lively and animated and one would hope to see more of her in the future.  Harris, as the Auntie, gives us a conflicted woman, dealing with ghosts of the past and fighting “the good fight” in a world that is not ready for her.  A woman, ahead of her time, who one feels sorry for and yet secretly likes.  A lovely performance.  And Lacey is quite a find.  Her German accent seems spot on and her brief imitation of a Dietrich song is very good.  Your heart goes out to her as she struggles with her new world.  A haunting performance.

I would recommend this play, especially for the history it imparts.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.