Crumbs from the Table of Joy

by Lynn Nottage

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Lynn Nottage’s Crumb from the Table of Joy begins in the autumn of 1950. Ernestine Crump, a seventeen-year-old African-American girl, explains how her mother’s death affected Godfrey, her father. The family initially lived in Florida, but then Godfrey decided to move with his daughters, Ernestine and fifteen-year-old Ermina, to New York City. Godfrey works at a bakery, and the family lives in Brooklyn. The girls have a hard time at school and Ernestine enjoys going to the movies to escape. Godfrey has become a follower of a minister called Father Divine, leader of the Peace Mission Movement. Ernestine and Ermina resent Divine, for they feel that he prevents them from having fun. For example, Godfrey says that they cannot listen to the radio on Sundays because Divine says so.

Godfrey polishes his shoes, an activity he enjoys because it makes him feel proud. He jots down questions so that he will remember what to ask Father Divine when the minister comes to town. He doesn’t want the girls to go out because he fears they will encounter race-oriented violence. Ernestine is supposed to graduate from high school soon, and Godfrey is very proud of her. He gets a letter from Divine that assigns new names to everyone in the family. Godfrey Crump becomes Godfrey Goodness, Ermina becomes Devout Mary, and Ernestine becomes Darling Angel. Godfrey is thrilled, but the girls are not.

Lily Ann Green, sister of the deceased Mrs. Crump, arrives. She is the first black woman the girls have seen ever dress like a white woman. She is unmarried. She smokes, drinks, swears, and shares her opinions boldly—all behavior that is completely foreign to them. Lily reminds Godfrey of aspects of his past, most of which he wishes not to remember because they don’t fit with his new Christian identity. Lily clearly intends to stay for a while.

Lily explains to Ernestine that it’s hard for her to keep a job because white people do not appreciate an opinionated black woman. Ernestine explains that she wants to be a famous film actress. Lily is a communist. She tries to take care of the girls, including doing things like combing out their tangled hair. When Ernestine writes an essay on the Labor Movement for school, word gets out, and people—spurred by the Cold War-era fear of communism—accuse Godfrey of being a communist too. He is angry about this. Ernestine begins to idolize her aunt.

Ermina and Ernestine are dressed for a Peace Mission dinner. Lily enters, drunk. She begins to talk about men from her past, and Ernestine expresses her desire to dance with a man like Lily has done. Godfrey enters, horrified by Lily’s drunkenness, and they argue. He accuses her of disrespecting her sister’s memory, and she accuses him of driving her sister to the grave. When Lily kisses Godfrey, he accepts it. He then insists that his daughters are going to have a better life than he has.

Godfrey disappears after this fight with Lily, leaving with only his jacket and hat. On the subway, he speaks to a white German woman named Gerte Shulte. She questions Godfrey, asking directions, and he is very uncomfortable. When she weeps, he offers her cookies. She is hungry, so he takes her to the Peace Mission; he explains that he is heading to the mission and that they will feed her there. The pair is shown in a “heavenly glow.” Meanwhile, Godfrey’s family suffers at home.

After several days, Godfrey returns home with Gerte, his new wife. His family is shocked and angry because she is not only white...

(This entire section contains 1135 words.)

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but also German.

Ernestine is waiting for a revolution that hasn’t come. She is dressed for a Peace Mission dinner with Divine. Everyone goes except Lily, and the large amount of food shocks Gerte. The minister’s car purportedly gets a flat tire in New Jersey, and he never arrives. Godfrey is distraught because he thought Divine wouldn’t let them down. Gerte tries to comfort Godfrey, saying the Peace Mission brought them together. She then confesses to Ernestine that she thinks there are other ministers who could replace Divine, suggesting that organized religion is somewhat fraudulent.

Ermina has become interested in boys. She expresses her discomfort with Gerte. Ermina asks Gerte if she hates Jews, and Gerte gets offended. Gerte asks Ernestine why she never speaks to her. Ernestine admits she is scared of Gerte. Gerte will not turn on the radio because Godfrey doesn’t want it playing on Sundays, but Lily flips it on. Gerte does not drink with Lily because it is too early. She and Lily argue until Gerte asks if they cannot forget that they are different colors behind closed doors. Lily becomes enraged. She is drinking more often now, and doesn’t go out to meetings much anymore. Ernestine continues to work on her graduation dress.

Godfrey and Gerte burst into the apartment. He is bleeding, and she is bloody. He and Gerte were on their way to the movies and Godfrey was assaulted for being with a white woman. Gerte doesn’t understand why they were attacked and wants to get the police involved, but Lily knows the police won’t do anything. Ernestine blames Gerte and tells her that she hates her. When Gerte leaves to get ice, Lily asks why she wasn’t good enough for Godfrey and why he didn’t choose her over Gerte. He tells her that she is too much trouble. Gerte asks Godfrey to send Lily away, and she rips up all of his questions for Divine. The couple’s struggle gives way, and they end up kissing passionately.

Ernestine cleans up the scattered and torn-up papers, and in doing so she reads her father’s questions. Lily enters, and she and Ernestine have a drink. Lily explains that she’s going away to a conference upstate. Gerte hears the noise and comes out, thinking Godfrey is home. Lily offers her a drink but Gerte says no. Gerte seems to want to say something kind, but Lily will not let her.

Ernestine has graduated from high school. Godfrey has gotten her a job at the bakery, but she doesn’t want it. Instead, she wants to follow Lily. She sets out for Harlem but can’t find her aunt. A bartender directs her to City College. She says that in the future she’ll go back to Brooklyn to visit. Ermina will give birth to a little girl she will name for her mother, and Ernestine will graduate college. Lily will eventually be found dead. Ernestine will go on and read important books and participate in the fight for civil rights. She will sing loudly in her church choir.