In 1912, Reverend Major Jealous Divine, whose birth name might or might not have been George Baker and whose parents are commonly thought to have been freed Southern slaves, began telling people he was God. After he was arrested on “lunacy” charges in Georgia, Father Divine, as he was more commonly called, moved with his followers to Brooklyn to establish the religious society known as the International Peace Mission Movement. Divine taught abstinence from sex, alcohol and tobacco. He also preached, more controversially, racial integration and equality.
Father Divine’s controversial forerunner to the civil rights movement sets the backdrop for Lynn Nottage’s play Crumbs From the Table of Joy, scheduled for February and March shows at Carpenter Square Theatre, 800 W. Main St. The play tells the story of the Crumps, an African-American family attempting to seek solace in the Peace Mission after the death of its matriarch. While widower Godfrey is a true believer, his two teenage daughters and his Communist sister-in-law are significantly less impressed with Father Divine and his teachings.
“Some people will call him a charlatan, because what he did was he united all of these people, but in order to become a part of the Father Divine movement, you had to sign over your property,” said Crumbs director Albert Bostick. “So he became extremely wealthy, but in return, what he did is he bought land and he brought them all in, and he brought people of every ethnicity into the Peace Mission. He himself in the 1950s was married to a white woman, and so being married to a white woman, most people don’t realize in certain areas, it was punishable by being whipped, beaten or lynched.”
Following Divine’s teachings, Godfrey gets remarried — to Gerte, a white German immigrant with no money for food. Despite his intentions, the marriage creates strife inside and outside the house.
Bostick, directing his second play for Carpenter Square, said he “immediately fell in love” with Crumbs because he related to its historical setting and many of the issues the characters face.
“I’m so enamored of the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration … the idea in the ’50s that people from the South moved north, trying to seek a better life,” Bostick said. “Nottage’s play deals with the coming-of-age of two African-American females and a father who is trying to find a way to have them grow up and be positive folk. And the difficulty for him is that he came up North looking for a better thing for his children, only to find out that it is equally as difficult.”
As rehearsals began, Bostick realized that Crumbs’ younger cast members needed additional explanations to relate to some of the material.
“The unique challenge is having actors in the play who are not familiar with the era,” Bostick said. “We have two young ladies who, of course, are millennials, and being a millennial, there are references in the play that they’re not aware of, and so you’re teaching that while you’re also getting them in the play because you want them to be immersed in the time period.”
Because Ernestine serves as narrator, Bostick said, the actress’ understanding of the context of play is crucial to its success.
“She has to be able to communicate those things as if it were happening to her in the ’50s,” Bostick said. “She has to know who Father Divine is, she has to understand Father Divine’s hold on her father and she has to struggle with whether she believes the way that her father believes because of his belief in Father Divine. So if you don’t know who Father Divine is, you don’t know about the Peace Mission, you don’t know what occurred, then how can you hope to tell that story?”
Further complicating Crumbs staging are Ernestine’s occasional fantasies relating what she wished had happened instead of what actually took place in the play’s reality.
“It’s very complex,” Bostick said, “but it’s also very rich. That also is something that attracted me to it — the complexity of these ideas and the complexity of trying to produce it that way, to make sure that all the messages get across.”
Bostick, who has taught in-school workshops as an artist in residence and previously served as artistic director for Black Liberated Arts Center, will participate in a question-and-answer portion following two Friday morning matinee presentations for high school students. Bostick said he expects he’ll have to coax questions out of the students, who are often more comfortable seeking out answers online, where they might not have the motivation to do historical research without a specific reference point.
“If they don’t have an interest, what they do on the computer is they just scroll past it. If they’re not interested on television, they just change the channel,” Bostick said. “What’s not good about the internet is there is no human interaction. That’s a thing I fight tooth and nail about because theater is about human interaction.”
But Bostick said he’s discovering the play’s setting is sparking his cast’s curiosity about the past.
“What’s wonderful about the cast and these kids that I’m working with is that they begin to want to know,” he said. “They want to know and they want to experience what is going on in this play, and that has been what’s so rewarding for me as the director and a teacher, because I love teaching as well.”
Crumbs From the Table of Joy
Thursday-Sunday and March 1-4 and 8-10
Carpenter Square Theatre
800 W. Main St.
Print headline: Divine theater; Carpenter Square Theatre explores race and religious sects in Crumbs From the Table of Joy.