Theater Interview: SHANEL BAILEY (Now Starring in the Keen Company Revival of Lynn Nottage’s “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” at Off-Broadway’s Theatre Row)

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by Gregory Fletcher on March 20, 2023

in Interviews,Theater-New York


At Off-Broadway’s Theatre Row onf West 42nd Street, Stage and Cinema’s Gregory Fletcher spoke with Shanel Bailey, who stars in the first New York revival of Lynn Nottage’s professional debut Crumbs from the Table of Joy. Originally produced by Second Stage in 1995, the play clearly shows why so many producers and audiences invested in her career, which includes Pulitzer Prize-winning plays Sweat, and Ruined, and the book of the Broadway musical MJ. The beautiful production by the ever-reputable Keen Company is directed by Colette Robert with simplicity and intelligence. The effective designers include Brendan Gonzales Boston (sets), Johanna Pan (costumes), Anshuman Bhatia (lighting), Broken Chord (sound) and Nikiya Mathis (wigs). Please note this touching, amusing, and heartfelt production plays only until April 1, 2023.

Ms. Bailey plays 17-year-old Ernestine Crump, whose family — after the passing of her mother — moves from Florida to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Along with an unwelcoming neighborhood and the racism that permeates America’s hopes and ideals, Ernestine’s family dynamics are challenged with the sudden appearances of two different women who make a claim on the family.

Malika Samuel and Shanel Bailey

GREGORY FLETCHER: Playwright Lynn Nottage has said that her inspiration for the play kicked into high gear when she read the Langston Hughes poem Luck.

Sometimes a crumb falls
From the Tables of Joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given,
To others
Only heaven.

How does the poem resonate with you after living in the shoes of the protagonist, Ernestine Crump?

SHANEL BAILEY: It reminds me a lot of the poetic way that Ernestine speaks. And her imagery. It also reminds me of the internal lesson Ernestine is learning — what it means to grow up black in America. It’s a constant comparison. At one point, she says, “Seems like only white folks can laugh on Sundays.” Constantly seeing the differences in the way that people walk through the world depending on your race. There are different ways to experience life, depending on where you live and what you look like. But it also reminds me to hold on to the little things, to find the perseverance to move forward. And that’s something Ernestine inspires me to do. She has every reason to just sit around and mope, or to be stagnant, not ever changing her own life but only holding onto the crumbs of what could be. Also, the people who make her dreams seem possible is something I hold onto. I get emotional every night thinking about the people who do that for me, fighting to have what people before me couldn’t have. It definitely feels like a shared experience.

FLETCHER: You were born in Brooklyn and have a sister. Any parallels with the relationship to your onstage sister in the play?

BAILEY: My real-life sister is 15 years older than I am. She’s really a Brooklyn girl, accent and all. She knows the ropes, and has more of a tough New York skin to her. I didn’t have to have that. In the play, my sister Ermina [played by Malika Samuel] is the younger one who’s tough. My sisters, both real and onstage are the fighters. I was the one who got protected. I think about that a lot. Also, I think about what it means to grow up in such a cool city, where every kind of person lives here. Queens, where I was raised, has the most languages spoken in one place. I definitely hold on to that. We all have to live here and figure it out together. I love holding on to that. Now, you see the demographics of certain neighborhoods changing, but New York City is still (and has always been) a melting pot. It’s my favorite quality about the city.

Shanel Bailey and Malika Samuel

FLETCHER: Your character breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, guiding us through Ernestine’s story. You’re the first and last person we see onstage. Who is the audience you’re addressing? And what do you hope to get back from us?

BAILEY: There are a few versions we discussed in rehearsal. It changes, depending on the night, but one is Ernestine speaking in her freshman college dorm, talking to her classmates about how she got here. Another is a lecture hall. Maybe as a professor who’s speaking to her class about her past. Either way, I’m speaking from the future to a group of people who want to hear my story. That’s the most important thing — that she needs them just as much as the audience needs her. To support her, believe in her, she needs the audience to hold her accountable and to root for her. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have had the impetus to do it herself. Also, I think she wants to inspire the audience of peers or younger people she wants to teach. Because she’s so quiet and inward, I think she really wants to be heard and understood. As a young black girl in the 1950s, there’s a need to be understood and to be heard. Because, at the time, no one cares about her opinion. No one asks. She’s not allowed to have that. So, this is her safe space and her place to be free, to be celebrated. Because it’s not something that exists for her real life, she has to create it in this fantasy setting with the audience. Otherwise, she has no place to speak, feel, or process what she’s been through.

Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey, and Jason Bowen

FLETCHER: I loved the magical realism in the play when a scene goes in a direction it didn’t actually go, but rather where your character had hoped it would go. Then you bring us back to reality by saying, “Well, at least I wish they had.”

BAILEY: In rehearsal, we talked a lot about how people respond to trauma. My sister, Ermina always has her foot on the pedal and is ready to go, whereas I freeze and don’t know how to process what’s going on. And so, Ernestine dissociates. She imagines her way out of a situation and envisions something better. That’s something we can all really connect to, especially living through the COVID pandemic, feeling like there’s not anything we can do about it, feeling helpless. I totally understand the idea of daydreaming. It’s like your imagination is better than reality. So much of Ernestine’s life is not in her control. She doesn’t get to decide where she lives. She doesn’t get to decide how she grieves. Her dad decides they’re going to change their names, their home, their homelife, and she’s like, okay. Much of her life is out of her control. But the one thing she has is what she thinks and imagines. It’s the one thing she holds on to. It gives her peace.

FLETCHER: Yes, I loved how “peace and blessings” was repeated throughout the play.

BAILEY:  She finds peace in holding onto the moments that are joyful, holding onto the crumbs and finding happiness somewhere else, like at the movies. We all have our outlet; we all escape somewhere. Creating a life that’s not her own and finding beauty there. She’s specific in what she finds beautiful. She talks about the seams and the creases of people’s clothing — you can tell she’s really paying attention to all the elements around her.

Shanel Bailey, Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, and Sharina Martin

FLETCHER: The family relationships around you are all so honest and connected. With your sister, Ermina, your father, Godfrey [Jason Bowen], your Aunt Lily [Sharina Martin], and Gerte, your father’s second wife [Natalia Payne]. How do you accomplish and reveal such meaningful connections among your fellow actors?

BAILEY: It’s partially being a people person, but also I have an amazing cast, and they make my job very easy, so to speak. I can’t help but love them onstage and off. Also, I think about my own life and connect with what I know. I have a sister, I have a brother, and I think about our relationships. I know what it’s like to be nurtured by a secondary kind of mother figure. My mother is ever-present  and irreplaceable in my life, and I attached that feeling to—what if I lost her? What would I do if I had to miss my mother? And who could have stepped in to resume where she left off? I think of my sister, who is older than me and stepped up when my mom was busy at work, so, in a way, it’s like I had two moms—the same way Ernestine gets two mother figures. It’s a responsibility as much as a blessing because you feel this pressure that everyone’s counting on me. Everyone believes in me, and I don’t want to let them down. I savor those moments. But most of all, my castmates make it really easy.

Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey, Natalia Payne, and Jason Bowen

FLETCHER: I can see the peace and blessings coming your way, not only as Ernestine but also as an artist. You’ve had a great deal of success so quickly. A month after graduating with a BFA in musical theater from Syracuse University, you booked the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon; during which time, you were featured on the TV show The Equalizer starring Queen Latifah, appeared on The Good Fight, and HBO’s That Damn Michael Che. And you performed at the classy 54 Below. How do you attribute so much success in such a short amount of time? Do you have a fairy godmother?

BAILEY: I honestly have no idea. I don’t mean it to sound like … I don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like, but … I don’t even think I’m trying to be humble, but I genuinely don’t understand why I’ve been given these opportunities — I don’t understand. I just, you know, say thank you to God and the universe and my family who got me here, and I don’t question it, you know?

Shanel Bailey singing "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" at 54 Below

FLETCHER: Is it something you’ve dreamt about your whole life and, in a way, conjured?

BAILEY: Yes, but like Ernestine, I didn’t think it was possible. Ernestine has this dream of becoming a dynamic, powerful person, who has opinions and is outspoken and lives big. But she never thought college would have been right in front of her. She lives in a time when it was such an accomplishment just to graduate high school. But college? No, she’s supposed to get married or get the job at a bakery. Those are her options. For me, yes, I knew I wanted to act. But I didn’t know how to actually achieve it. But when a door opens, I say, “Okay,” and step through. I hadn’t thought of being on Broadway right after college; I had a different plan. I was going to work regionally and build up my resume, and go on tour for a few years. Maybe by 29 years of age, I’d step on Broadway and land a role. Little did I know it would happen a month out of school. So, change of plans. You’re going on now, and you’re going to understudy a lead role, and go on a bunch of times, and you’re going to learn everything you need to know. It wasn’t something I could’ve ever predicted.

Shanel Bailey in Glimmerglass Festival's Oklahoma! Photo by Karli Cadel

I guess it goes to show that your dreams are only limited by your own imagination. Maybe if I hadn’t seen myself as a Broadway performer, then I might not have achieved the things that I could. That’s the only thing I can really hold onto—feeling like I’m supposed to be doing this. Like with Ernestine, the feeling is the same—I can’t compare it to any other joy that I experience; this is the most happy and heard and accomplished I’ve ever felt. There’s a state of euphoria that isn’t comparable to other aspects of my life. And so this is something I definitely hold onto. I just don’t question it. Doors are being opened, and I don’t really know why, but I’m very, very grateful and try to make the most out of every opportunity. Because you never know when it could end. Clearly, I’m supposed to be doing this. At some point I hope to figure out why. I think it’s probably because I need to tell other people who look like me, who come from where I come from, that this can also be their reality if they dream it for themselves. Maybe that’s my job: to show other people it’s possible. I’m first generation American, a Jamaican immigrants’ daughter from a low-income neighborhood. Good things can still happen, and so I definitely want to show other people—other young black girls that there is always another possibility for them. Dreams are as big as their own imagination. So, imagine as big as you can, aim as high as you want, and see where you land.

Shanel Bailey and Lynn Nottage at the opening of Crumbs from the Table of Joy

FLETCHER: Who showed you the way? Who inspired you and were your role models?

BAILEY: My mother and sister are my guiding forces of inspiration. They are my “Mommy and Aunt Lily” references from the play. Lynn Nottage continuously inspires, with her ability to give language to so many of the feelings and experiences I and other black girls and women share. I also think of Audra McDonald, Debbie Allen, Viola Davis, Zoe Saladana, and even younger inspirations like Zendaya, Chloe X Halle, Issa Rae; women who continue to show me all that black women are capable of creating our own opportunities.

FLETCHER: Your family must be very proud of you.

BAILEY: My mom is just so supportive. I could have one line in the chorus of Beauty and the Beast, or I could be Ernestine, and she’s like, “You did great; you did great!”

FLETCHER: You’re probably one of the few people whose momentum wasn’t stalled during COVID.

BAILEY: I was at The Book of Mormon when theater was shut down. I started on a six-month contract, but afterwards it turned open-ended, so it had been around nine months when things stopped. When things started up again, I went back for another four months.

FLETCHER: As someone who was in The Book of Mormon pre-COVID and post, I heard there were changes made during the shutdown, inspired by the times of Black Lives Matter. Can you share any of the revisions made?

BAILEY: The Book of Mormon has been such an incredible experience for me. The energy of the building was like family, and I learned so many lessons that will last me a lifetime. During the shutdown, the company worked together with the creative team to make sure we were still telling the story the creators intended, and that things also felt good to the bodies performing it on stage every night. I’m so grateful that they were open to that kind of collaboration. Not much changed though, it’s so well-crafted; it’s stood the test of time — haha. We adjusted a couple jokes that are even funnier for today’s times and made the narratives and agency of the characters clear, like Nabulungi saving her own community versus being saved by the missionaries.

Shanel Bailey in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies on Paramount+

FLETCHER: Thereafter, is that when “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” came about? I’ve got Paramount+ so I’m excited to see it. How does your character, Hazel, fit into the Pink Ladies?

BAILEY: I love Hazel so much. And funny enough, when I got the audition for Ernestine for Lynn’s play, and I was like, “This girl sounds a lot like Hazel.” They even look alike—both have bangs and a curled bob. When I posted a picture of Ernestine, a friend from “Grease” contacted me, “Are we allowed to post photos of our characters?” And I answered back, “It’s not Hazel, it’s Ernestine Crump.” Both characters are finding themselves, not knowing how to exist in a society that’s not built for them. She feels uncomfortable in her skin, not knowing how to find her place in the world. A world that’s constantly telling you to shut up, stay in your corner, and know your place. I feel like Hazel is a bit like what Ernestine dreams. She is a bit more opinionated and outspoken. They’re both really, really shy in social settings. They don’t want to rock the boat. They’re trying to skate under the radar and get through high school to something better. Hazel is a science nerd, so she’s smart. I think it’s a tough situation to be the smartest person in the room and to be a black woman in the year 1954. Because again, nobody wants to hear from you, and people get offended by you being smarter than them. Thinking you’re trying to downplay their intelligence. So, Hazel is constantly holding her tongue. But when you ask for her opinion, she’s going to give it to you, and it’s going to make a difference in what you do with your day.

In terms with how she fits into the Pink Ladies, she’s the new kid in school and not fitting into a system that’s already been built. Where does she go? The Pink Ladies asked the same question initially: what happens to the kids who don’t fit this mold of the social popular norm? You either become a wallflower or an outcast. Not only am I not fitting into these social groups, but visually, as a black girl, I also don’t work in this space. Her journey is really, really fun. She’s a smart girl from an affluent family. And it’s really cool to see a wealthy young black girl walking through a space that’s not built for her. Seeing how she takes on the world and the relationships she makes, and how she strives to feel less alone. I think people will be taken with her journey because there are a bunch of people who go through high school not feeling like they belong, not knowing where to be and who their tribe is. That’s definitely Hazel’s experience, which is similar to Ernestine. I’m excited to see where she ends up and who she becomes.

FLETCHER: Lucky for audiences of Crumbs from the Table of Joy that we find out what becomes of Ernestine and the rest of her family. It’s a lovely denouement to the play, reporting what happens with everyone’s lives. Without spoiling it, I loved hearing of Ernestine’s active future, full of ups and downs.

BAILEY: Yeah, I think Ernestine has a really awesome life.

FLETCHER: And as our own denouement to this interview, I predict a continued road of success for you, a rising star for all to take notice, a role model for so many people. With your talent and beautifully endearing spirit, I see continued achievements coming your way.

follow Shanel Bailey at
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Crumbs from the Table of Joy production photos by Julieta Cervantes

Crumbs from the Table of Joy
Keen Company
atre Row in Theatre Five, 410 W 42nd St
Tues-Sat at 7; Sat & Sun at 2; Fri at 2 (March 31 only)
ends on April 1, 2023
for tickets ($60-$85), visit Keen Company

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