Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy takes place in Brooklyn in 1950. Its title is inspired by Langston Hughes’ short poem, "Luck":
Sometimes a crumb falls from the table of joy,
Sometimes a bone is flung,
To some people love is given,
To others only heaven.
In the play, both Ernestine Crump, a young African-American aspiring writer, and the other characters she evokes – her father Godfrey, sister Ermina, aunt Lily Ann Green, and stepmother Gerte, who is German – navigate the complexities of a world that yields no easy answers as to why certain people succeed and others continue to struggle. Religion, politics, interracial relations, all weigh on decisions, hopes, and desires that may or may not be fulfilled and yet constitute a weave that brings people together in their effort to improve their lot.
On Nov. 28, right after one of the first run-throughs of the play, Stefano "Stebos" Boselli, resident dramaturg at NCT, interviewed the director of the UNLV production, Clinton Turner Davis.
Stebos: Can you tell me about your artistic trajectory? Looking at your considerable career as director, producer, dramaturg, advocate, production and company manager, what where the main encounters or opportunities that brought you to converge to Vegas and UNLV to direct Crumbs from the Table of Joy?
Clinton Turner Davis: My “road to Vegas” and directing Crumbs begins with my friendship with [UNLV professor] Norma Saldivar. We first met when she was the resident director and artistic administrator at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. I directed Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson for the Rep.
Years later I was awarded a position as the first Lorraine Hansberry Fellow in theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Norma was a member of the faculty of UW-Madison and executive director of its Arts Institute, which housed the fellowship program. As part of that fellowship, I taught a course on August Wilson and directed Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. I was invited to direct Crumbs at UNLV by Norma.
Stebos: You began discussions with the show’s designers over the summer. How was that collaboration? Can you speak about your collective process?
Clinton Turner Davis: I held Zoom meetings with the production designers over the summer. We discussed the play, my vision, and ideas for the production. We shared photographs of the period — the Brooklyn neighborhood, styles of clothing, furniture, and all aspects of the physical production. As our discussions continued, we incorporated their ideas into what is finally realized on stage.
Stebos: Each of the five performers brings a particular quality of acting. What struck you at auditions about each of them? How did you then approach the work with them on character, voice/accent, or physical characterization?
Clinton Turner Davis: What struck me most about the five actors cast was their facility with the language, their depth of commitment to the text, and their abilities to enter the specific emotional worlds of each character. Throughout the rehearsal process, I offered them suggestions to build upon, which would help three-dimensionalize their characters and relationships to each other. We also discussed the time period of the play, 1950, the state of race relations in America, and how this affected the characters who had relocated from Pensacola, Florida, and Berlin, Germany.
Stebos: Music lends texture to both the play and scene transitions: What was the inspiration for picking these pieces?
Clinton Turner Davis: Collaborating with the sound designer Victoria Wojdan has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had working in theater. After a very brief discussion of what the soundscape needed to achieve in Crumbs, she immediately understood and was able to read my mind in the selections she made. Often, she surprised me with her choices, which were the exact music or sound reference I had in mind. The music selected provides emotional and rhythmic support to a scene, transitions from scene to scene, as well as supporting the characters’ “inner life” throughout the play. The music and sounds Victoria has selected are an integral part of the production.
Stebos: The play foregrounds several larger themes such as black identity, race relations, ideology, and religion. Which ones do you find most relevant to your approach to the play?
Clinton Turner Davis: All of those themes are relevant and have been incorporated in our approach to the play. Throughout the rehearsal process, we constantly discussed the “given circumstances” of the characters — what they “bring to the table” of their existence. How those themes resonated with the characters and within the dramatic action, not only onstage in the present moment, but also in what the characters experienced in their lives when not onstage in a particular scene is extremely important. We discussed the predominantly Jewish neighborhood in which the play takes place, how the characters adjust to living in Brooklyn, NY; racial segregation; Sen. Joe McCarthy’s hearings; the influences of communism in the black community; Father Divine; and other prophets who wielded significant influence throughout African-American urban areas of the period.
Stebos: This is a memory play that includes both a certain distance from the events as recounted by Ernestine and distortions or imagined scenes out of the narrator’s desire for different events or outcomes. [How] do you plan to underscore the difference between “reality” and imagination on stage?
Clinton Turner Davis: The distance between “reality” and imagination in Ernestine’s eyes/memory is very short in Crumbs. Where does reality end and imagination begin? Can they be one and the same? “What is the structure of memory?” is a question we consistently asked throughout rehearsals. Why are memory and imagination structured in specific ways for Ernestine? Why does she hold on to these memories? How does her enjoyment of movies provide fodder for sustaining her emotional imagination? How does she connect the dots to realize a more complete picture of herself? How do reality and imagination affect all of us?
Stebos: What was the most difficult challenge of either the play or the production? Or, were you surprised by something running more smoothly than expected?
Clinton Turner Davis: There have not been difficult challenges. The really rewarding experience has been coordinating all the technical aspects of the production – a rotating stage, scenic elements that fly in and out, and actors’ quick changes of costumes from one scene to the next. It’s all in the timing. In fact, I have been elated by everyone’s commitment to the realization of Crumbs. Rehearsals and the entire technical process have moved very quickly and efficiently. This collaborative process has been a joy to witness and in which to participate.