The Reginald D. Haney that takes the stage in "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" will be unlike any audiences have seen so far.
The third-year graduate student in Minnesota State University's Department of Theatre and Dance was scheming and neurotic in the farcical comedy "Imaginary Invalid." He was materialistic and recalcitrant as the rent-gouging landlord Benjamin Coffin III in "Rent" and, during the most recent Highland Summer Theatre series, he played the role of King Arthur in the hilariously irreverent "Spamalot."
But Haney said the next production in MSU's mainstage season will push his acting skills into new territory.
"This is a totally different style," he said.
With MSU graduate and founder of Penumbra Theatre Lou Bellamy returning as guest director, perhaps it comes as no surprise that "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" represents a stylistic contrast to other Mainstage productions.
Whereas MSU excels in musical theatre — almost always anchoring its Mainstage season around large and flamboyant productions that have made MSU's among the most profitable and successful collegiate departments in the country — Bellamy's Penumbra Theatre works almost exclusively in the realms of social justice and African -American theater. As such, Lynn Nottage's exploration of sex, religion, politics and race in 1950s America is a text-driven work that demands careful attention from both cast and audience.
For Haney's part, the actor said Bellamy has been working in rehearsals to eliminate big, emotive movements from actors, preferring instead a more understated style that does not call attention to itself as acting.
"(Bellamy is) trying to create a sort of intimacy between the actors and the audience," Haney said. "He doesn't want the actors to be on acting on stage."
Nottage's narrative centers around the course of events that follow after the meek and conservative Godfrey Crumb (played by Haney) moves his daughters from Florida to Brooklyn after the death of his wife. As Godfrey fills his emotional void with puritanical religious beliefs, his free-loving, politically agitating, communist sister-in-law arrives to help raise his girls. The resulting tension forces daughters Ernestine and Ermina to choose their own course through the social and political upheaval of the era.
Bellamy said the characters and stories in "Crumbs" are intensely familiar. As an African-American actor who got his start after MSU instructor Ted Paul recruited him to play a role in "Finian's Rainbow" because he was one of the only students of color on campus in the early 1960s, Bellamy has devoted his career to advocating for social progress through theatre.
Borrowing its title from the Langston Hughes poem "Luck," Nottage's play probes the friction between those content to wait for falling crumbs and those willing to fight for a place at the table. Where Godfrey is hesitant to fight for racial equality, Lily embraces the struggle. Where Godfrey bans dancing, Lily teaches his daughters how to mamba.
Bellamy said he wants that friction to take center stage and has been coaching his cast in using natural speaking rhythms and storytelling traditions, rather than technical acting skills, to bring those elements to the fore.
"I don't want to see craft," Bellamy said, "I want to see the character. ... I recognize each of these characters from the community I grew up in. My job is to give them a clarity and an agency to make them successful."
In his guest return to MSU, Bellamy said he chose the play both for its thematic elements as well its ability to serve as a as a vehicle for showcasing MSU's talent.
Having been on his wish list for several years, Bellamy said the play not only calls for a diverse cast but serves those characters with complex and challenging roles. In many mainstream theatre productions, Bellamy said the roles for African-American actors are often archetypal and secondary.
Haney himself said that despite having an extensive background in opera and classical theatre, he found it difficult to find roles in musical productions because of his color. In other productions, he was sometimes cast in roles for white characters.
To that end, Bellamy said "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" serves his personal mission of social justice in more ways than one.
"I'm almost 70," he said. "If I'm going to do something, it's got to matter."
If You Go What MSU's "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" Performances ■ 7:30 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday, and Nov. 14-16; ■ 2 p.m. on Nov. 16 and 17. Where Ted Paul Theatre of the Earley Center for Performing Arts Tickets $16, $14 for senior citizens, youth 16 and under and groups of 15 or more, and $11 for MSU students. Purchase online at MSUTheatre.com, or by calling or stopping by the Theatre & Dance Box Office in the lobby of the Earley Center from 4-6 p.m., Monday-Friday. Call 507-389-6661.