In playwright Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs From the Table of Joy, 17-year-old Ernestine Crump is about to graduate from high school, and she’s thinking – hard – about an uncertain future.
The drama, onstage through April 14 at freeFall Theatre, is a “memory play” – that is, present-day, adult Ernestine is looking back and commenting on the events of Spring 1950, when her family had just relocated from Pensacola, Florida to Brooklyn, N.Y. Everything is different, and a lot of things are just plain scary.
“Ernestine has this huge idea of life and what she wants to do,” observes Alicia Thomas, the Michigan-born actress playing the role at freeFall. “When she’s in the memory scenes, when she’s talking to the audience, she’s a whole different person. And she doesn’t know exactly when and how to break through, when she’s in the present day.”
Thomas, who’s based in New York City and living the life of a working, go-where-the-jobs-are actor, is finding it surprisingly easy to play a teenage girl with a relentlessly questioning mind.
“I am very similar to her in that I am not sure where I want to be,” Thomas says. “I have this huge vision, and like a lot of people there are a lot of things I want to do. It’s very strategic, what I want to do, but I have no idea how to get there.
“And that’s challenging for me, because she is me in a way, and I don’t want to be bawling for 20 minutes after the show. So I have to collect myself, and make sure that I’m taking care of myself as an actor.”
The other members of freeFall’s exemplary cast are Trenell Mooring, Michael Kinsey, Rae Davis and Emilee Dupre. Jacqueline Thompson directs.
Ernestine, her younger sister Ermina and their father live in a tiny, cramped apartment. Recently widowed, the impressionable Godfrey Crump has followed his erstwhile religious leader to New York, believing a better life must certainly await his grief-stricken daughters. A simple, trusting man, he dotes on his girls.
Enter fast-talking, free-thinking Aunt Lily, who moves in (at her own invitation) and proceeds to shake up the family – and Ernestine in particular – with stories of the rampant racism and class struggles going on in New York City, and around the country.
Lily drinks, cusses and likes to dance – all no-nos in the Crump abode – and she is (gasp) a card-carrying Communist.
It’s no wonder, then, why Ernestine is confused about the world.
Thomas started her stage career as a young dancer, and it was in that capacity that she joined the Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit. When she transitioned into the acting company, she found her passion.
“I was 16 – one year younger than Ernestine – and I went to my director and said ‘I want to do this the rest of my life, and I’m scared,’” Thomas remembers.
“As in, I was thinking like a 30-something year old person who has already been in the business, who was struggling. But I was 16 and I was scared out of my mind. I wanted to be a teacher up until then.”
She can’t explain it, but somehow she knew she was facing a rocky road – there are 1,000 actors for every one role – but she was determined. Her parents, she says, supported her, and in time she graduated from Illinois’ Bradley University with a BA in theater.
From there, she moved directly to New York City, and she hasn’t looked back.
This is Thomas’ second St. Petersburg show. In 2018, she was part of the ensemble in the American Stage production of the musical The Producers, at Demens Landing Park.
Although it’s sadly a fact that there aren’t as many roles for African American actresses in this country (count the reasons) as for their white counterparts, Thomas is just happy to be working. “But I am grateful that there are more stories being told that I can be represented in,” she says.
She’s fascinated by, and eager to work in, two recent dramas by black playwrights: Tori Sampson’s If Pretty Hurts … and Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau (produced just a few months ago at American Stage).
Thomas says she also identifies with Beneatha Younger, the forward-thinking college student in Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic A Raisin in the Sun (she’s played the role twice onstage). Like Ernestine Crump, Beneatha must continue to put one foot in front of the other, despite the obstacles – racial and otherwise – thrown in her way.
Professional actors, too, need to develop thick skins. That’s the business. “Sometimes, of course, I don’t know why they don’t hire me, or why they don’t call me back,” Thomas says. “Sometimes it might just be a crappy audition!
“You’ve got to move on, to the next audition – and, hopefully the next job.”