Crumbs from the Table of Joy

by Lynn Nottage

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

A white person cannot understand what it is like to be black.

Nottage’s play explores the uneasy tensions and distances between white and black Americans. Godfrey marries Gerte, a white German woman, and tries to bring her into the family, but the arrangement is fraught from the start for reasons of racial difference, despite Gerte’s good intentions. She does not understand why her stepdaughters cannot accept her. Gerte’s presence makes the girls’ lives harder. Ermina says, “It ain’t normal for a white lady to be living in a house with colored folks.” Gerte wants to know why Ernestine doesn’t speak to her, and Ernestine admits that she is afraid of Gerte. Gerte tries to act friendly to Ernestine, offering to take her to the movies, but Ernestine knows that this would only cause more trouble for her and her sister outside their home. Gerte and Lily argue, and Gerte wants to know why they cannot “forget [their] differences behind this closed door.” Lily says that she sees a white woman when she looks at Gerte and a black woman when she looks in the mirror, and this difference holds true behind the closed door. Gerte says that she has also known pain, given her experiences in World War II, and that she has seen what happens when people only notice their differences. But what she has been through is not the same as what black Americans go through. The dynamics of the play make clear that one category of adversity—in this case, Gerte’s—cannot substitute for another category—that of the Crumps. Adversity is not generalized: a white person, even equipped with empathy and wisdom, cannot understand the experience of a black person.

A spiritual leader is not a substitute for God.

Crumbs from the Table of Joy examines the role of spiritual leaders in society. The play implicitly critiques larger-than-life leaders who attract a following in such a way that distracts from the core principles of spirituality. This dynamic is explored in the characters of Godfrey Crump and Father Divine, leader of the Peace Mission, whom Crump has recently begun to follow. The audience never sees Godfrey worry about what God thinks of him or his family, but he is constantly concerned with what Father Divine might have to say. When his daughters want to turn on the radio on Sunday, Godfrey wonders what Father Divine (who has a rule against this behavior) would say as a result of their lack of commitment to their souls. Rather than offering real spiritual guidance, helping Godfrey to understand God or faith more fully, Father Divine does things that seem nice and reassuring but have no real value to the family, like giving them new names. The names are impractical and ridiculous, as the girls point out, but Godfrey likes his new name (Godfrey Goodness) and introduces himself this way to other people. Father Divine’s lack of substantial guidance and his eventual failure to show up at a Peace Mission dinner suggest that he is not the minister he claims to be. At that sans-Divine dinner, Ernestine says jokingly, “Searching for salvation in the tender juices of a mutton chop layered in our favorite mint jelly, God speaks the language of our stomachs.” If anyone doubts Father Divine’s “power,” they are reassured by the plate of lemon tarts. Gerte is shocked by the quantity of food, remarking that there are many children in Europe who are starving. This reaction represents another critique of Divine’s values, which are shown to be relatively superficial and materialistic. In the Epilogue, Ernestine says that she will sing loudly...

(This entire section contains 849 words.)

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in her church choir, indicating that she will find her own way to God. In the end, the play contrasts Ernestine’s self-guided religious path with that of her father, who projects his religious needs onto a flawed human being.

Real life is not like the movies.

The world of Hollywood movies offers an imaginative counterpart to Ernestine’s reality. Ernestine loves to go to the movies because it gives her an avenue of escape from her life. In the movies, characters wear perfect clothes with perfect seams, unlike the hand-sewn dresses her mother made for her or the graduation dress she makes herself. In the movies, families’ arguments are “underscored by beautiful music” and end in reconciliation. Everyone is white, men are “heroes,” and conflicts and trials are resolved in “90 minutes.” When Godfrey and Lily fight, Ernestine wishes for them to make up and smooth things over. She wants to have a beautiful name like “Laura Saint Germaine” rather than Ernestine Crump or Darling Angel, the new name given to her by Father Divine. Ernestine sometimes imagines movie scenes about her own life, wishing that her father’s new wife, Gerte, will do something embarrassing at a church dinner, like someone might do in a film. Ernestine often imagines such cinematic escapes from reality, but she always has to return to reality and acknowledge that life is not tidy, especially not for a black woman in 1950.