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Grief in turbulent times: Flag Shakes presents “Crumbs from the Table of Joy”

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Flag Shakes presents "Crumbs"

Rapheal Hamilton as Godfrey Crump and Racquel McKenzie as his daughter, Ernestine, in Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival's production of “Crumbs from the Table of Joy."

All families experience loss and grief.

And it is that universal connection to loss and grief that can lead to an understanding of a Black family’s experience in 1950s America – a most turbulent time in the country’s history.

After a two-year delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival presents “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” by Lynn Nottage, beginning Thursday and running through Sunday, May 15, at the Coconino Center for the Arts.

“What makes this show amazing is that it deals with grief in a family and how it shapes the adult you become,” said director Bray Lawrence. “But it is seen through the lens of a Black family in the 1950s. The show itself is really a snapshot of a family you’ve never met during this time period.”

The story follows the Crump family. After the death of his wife, a father, Godfrey Crump (played by Rapheal Hamilton) moves his two daughters Ernestine and Ermina (played by Racquel McKenzie and Ryan L. Jenkins respectively) from Florida to Brooklyn. The cast is rounded out with La Rivers, who plays the revolutionary Aunt Lily, and Audrey Young, who plays the white, immigrant love interest, Gerte.

As the family deals with the grief, they must also navigate perceptions of family, religion, politics, race and more – all on the brink of change to be brought on by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

“The play has a large core – family,” Lawrence said. “And anyone can see this just outside the details.”

Godfrey falls in love with a white woman and marries her, which was highly unusual (even illegal) at the time. Ernestine and Ermina grapple with their father’s decision to marry – not to mention a white woman – so soon after the death of their mother. Godfrey seeks out religion to offer solace and tries to protect himself and his daughters in that comfort religion provides. Ernestine finds herself drawn into thoughts of Equal Rights and revolution fostered by Aunt Lily.

McKenzie said Ernestine, who is quiet and reserved, is focused on her family in grief.

“I actually went through the exact same thing,” McKenzie said, adding that she and her younger brother lived with dad after the loss of their mother. “I felt that her innocence spoke to me in that she tried the best she could to be there for her family. I feel super connected to this role.”

Lawrence said that many issues important to the Black community were happening in the 1950s, and Black parents were emphatic about preparing their children to thrive in a culture still dominated by racism, fear of communism and the industrial prosperity affecting the country in the wake of World War II.

“It really opened my eyes on how much my mother, my aunts, my father have done for me as seen through the character of Ernestine,” Lawrence said.

McKenzie said audiences will be able to feel the loss, move through that trauma, see that it is possible to find love again, find religion and more. The audiences will take away something that they may not have fully understood before.

“It’s a great way to see life through someone else’s eyes,” McKenzie added.

Although the narratives of racism, poverty and lack of access to opportunity that affect Black families in America still exist, Lawrence said that the conversations are happening.

“There is a conscious effort to grow from those kinds of mistakes, to bring up what has happened and try to exorcise that damage and that trauma,” Lawrence said, adding that Black trauma is happening in the margins of the play. What is actually happening is a family’s experience with grief, which makes the story, and what is happening in the margins, break through any barriers.

McKenzie agreed and said that she’s seen movement toward progress in her own life, but there is still work to be done.

“We, as a society, have gotten better,” McKenzie said. “Growth is happening, and there is hope, as long as the work continues. It is tiring, but it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.”

The Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival was founded in 2015 by a group of artists and educators led by Executive Director Dawn Tucker, and is now in its eighth season. Hannah Fontes, marketing director for FlagShakes, said the nonprofit performs five or six shows a year that are Shakespeare and other actor-driven works.

The performance is made possible in partnership with Creative Flagstaff and with support from the National Endowment on the Arts, City of Flagstaff, Flagstaff 365.com, the Arizona Community Foundation and the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

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