Father Divine is not a character in the current production by nonprofit Philly troupe Lantern Theater Company — but he plays an important part.
In Philly, we know him as a charismatic preacher who had something to do with the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street. Recently an urban explorer’s paradise of graffitied ruins, the historic building is now an upscale hotel with a white-linen Italian restaurant from a husband-and-wife duo who’ve both been James Beard Award semifinalists, he for savory food, her for desserts.
The themes of love and sweets both factor into Divine’s connection with the story of “Crumbs From the Table of Joy,” the Lynn Nottage play Lantern is running now through early December.
“I think he’s a fascinating personality,” said theater professor Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon. “The team has to understand what Father Divine stands for in order to build out the world of the play.”
Williams-Witherspoon doesn’t have a role in the play, either, but, as a dramaturg, she too plays an important part.
If the director’s task is to create a story on stage, the dramaturg (rhymes with iceberg) describes where that story fits into a larger narrative of history, religion, political turmoil, and social trends.
“I try to build a story further in the past than when the play actually begins, so you can see the trajectory of lives,” explained Williams-Witherspoon, whose day job carries the title of Temple University senior associate dean, Center for the Performing and Cinematic Arts.
Many theaters hire dramaturgs like Williams-Witherspoon, who is also handing dramaturgy for Theatre Exile’s “Camp Siegfried,” closing Nov. 19.
“The playwright will set the time, the period and the location and then introduce you to a bunch of characters,” Williams-Witherspoon said. But “you don’t know what is going on around the characters in terms of world events.
“I help create the background information” to help the actors, the director, and lighting, set and costume designers, she said. “I try to give them an idea of what the world looks like, feels like, smells like.”
To do that, Williams-Witherspoon stood on the abyss of the Father Divine rabbit hole and plunged in.
“Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” set shortly after World War II, centers on a Black baker’s struggle to adjust to life as a recent widower moving from rural Florida to Harlem with his two brilliant adolescent daughters.
Part of Williams-Witherspoon’s research included reporting to director Bianca LaVerne Jones and the cast on sweeping trends like the Great Migration of southern Black people to northern cities and the role of jazz and Black jazz musicians in German life between and after the two World Wars — all pertaining to various elements of the plot. She even homed in on smaller details like wartime sugar rationing.
The baker, Godfrey Crump, latches on to Father Divine’s International Peace Movement. Besides providing community, it preaches that prosperity and stability will come with positive thinking. Family drama — inevitable with adolescents — explodes with the arrival of his deceased wife’s sister and a new bride, a white emigrant from Germany.
“You come to New York after your wife died, and you’ve got these two girls that you have to raise up in a new place, and you are poor, and you are African-American in New York and the only job you can get is working in a bakery,” Williams-Witherspoon said.
But Father Divine’s ministry helps with employment and housing, but most importantly, provides hope that “you are going to be fine, and you are going to have wealth.”
Williams-Witherspoon learned that Father Divine, a charismatic Black preacher, told his followers he was God, convincing them to give him their wealth.
Father Divine traveled around the country, first in Baltimore and then in the South, preaching the power of positive thinking and the necessity for avoiding negativity, she learned. He depended on attracting new followers, since Divine, who remarried a younger woman after his first wife died, also required celibacy among his followers.
The preacher, by then known as Father Major Jealous Divine, eventually built up his ministry in New York.
Lawsuits followed Father Divine wherever he went, Williams-Witherspoon said. When followers in New York sued to get their money back, Father Divine moved to Philadelphia. Like many other Philadelphians, he commuted to New York, but only on Sundays to preach — because New York state law prohibited serving subpoenas on Sundays.
In 1948, his International Peace Mission purchased the Lorraine Hotel, a posh high-rise built between 1892 and 1894. He renamed it the Divine Lorraine Hotel and it became the city’s first racially-integrated hotel.
He lived there before moving to a mansion in Gladwyne where he died in 1965.
“Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” (Through Dec. 10) Lantern Theater Co., St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St., 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org
Also on stage
“Macbeth in Stride” (Through Nov. 19) The Shakespeare classic turned rock, gospel, and pop musical about what it means to be an ambitious Black woman. Philadelphia Theatre Co., Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Phila. 215-985-0420 or theatrephiladelphia.org
“Fat Ham” (Nov. 24-Dec. 23) James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning take on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” set at a southern BBQ and featuring a protagonist who is Black and queer. Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Phila., 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org
“Selling Kabul” (Through Nov. 19) A regional premier about family, choices and hiding from the Taliban, the first show in a season of plays by women. InterAct Theatre Co., Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., Phila., 215-568-8079 or interacttheatre.org
Updated Nov. 13