Seventeen-year-old Ernestine Crumb addresses the audience and explains that grief laid her family flat. When her mother died, her father, Godfrey, was unable to do anything but mourn his wife—until he discovered the teachings of Father Divine, the leader of the Peace Mission Movement. Wanting to be closer to Father Divine (who claims he’s God), Godfrey moved his daughters—Ernestine and her sister, Ermina—to Brooklyn, only to discover that Father Divine had relocated to Philadelphia.
Now the Crumbs live in a small apartment in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, where Godfrey works in a bakery. Godfrey keeps a protective watch over Ernestine and Ermina (who’s 15), especially trying to impress on them the importance of celibacy, which is one of Father Divine’s most important teachings. He also doesn’t let them listen to the radio on Sunday. On other days, the sisters go to the movies, which helps them grieve the loss of their mother, since they feel like they can openly cry in the theaters while watching dramatic storylines unfold before them. Other than going to the movies, Ernestine doesn’t do much, instead focusing on her studies. Ermina, on the other hand, is eager to spend time with boys her own age, but she rarely has the chance to do so.
One day, Godfrey eagerly awaits the mail, hoping he’ll receive a letter from Father Divine, whom he has written to many times. When the mail finally comes, Ermina flips through it and is excited to find a sample of fabric that she and her sister ordered. Ernestine will use the fabric to make herself a graduation dress, the sisters explain to Godfrey, who’s astounded to hear that his daughter will be graduating. She will be the first person in the family to finish high school, so Godfrey is incredibly proud. When he asks why she didn’t tell him before, though, she hints that she did, and he embarrassedly jots something down in his notepad—something he does frequently throughout the play, explaining at one point that he’s writing down questions to ask Father Divine when he finally sees him at the Holy Communion Banquet later that year. After writing in his notepad, Godfrey is elated to discover that he has received a response from Father Divine, in which Divine urges him to be strong in the face of hardship and gives Godfrey and his daughters new names. Godfrey will be Godfrey Goodness, Ernestine will be Darling Angel, and Ermina will be Devout Mary—a name she hates.
Around this time, a woman comes to the apartment and introduces herself as Ernestine and Ermina’s aunt. Her name is Lily, and she’s dressed in a style Ernestine has never seen a Black woman wear—that is, she’s dressed like a stylish white woman. She explains that she buys her clothes from the same stores where white women shop, suggesting to her niece that that looking better than white women is a good way to stand up against racism and discrimination. When Godfrey enters the room and sees Lily, he seems taken aback and hesitant to welcome her, though he later admits that he tried to find her in Harlem when he first arrived in New York City.
It soon becomes clear that Lily intends to stay with Godfrey and his daughters. She expresses her regret that she was unable to be present for her sister’s death, but she claims that she promised her mother—Ernestine and Ermina’s grandmother—that she would come look after Godfrey’s daughters now that her sister is gone. Godfrey doesn’t seem happy about this, particularly when Lily pokes fun of him for becoming so devoutly religious. She, for her part, likes to drink alcohol, listen to jazz, and go dancing. When Godfrey tells her that he doesn’t allow alcohol in the house, she tries to reminisce with him about their past, insinuating that they used to get drunk in bars together and become romantic with each other. But Godfrey awkwardly avoids the conversation.
In the ensuing weeks, Ernestine starts sewing her graduation dress. She often works on the dress while talking to Lily, who talks about an imminent cultural revolution. She is a member of the Communist Party, but she mainly speaks broadly about equality, raising points that resonate with Ernestine, who decides to write a school essay about the labor movement. Her teacher is not happy with the result, eventually showing it to the principal, who calls Godfrey in and lectures him about teaching his daughter communist ideas. Godfrey is incensed. Because of Lily, he says, everybody thinks he’s a communist now—even his coworkers, who won’t talk to him anymore. Lily, however, claims that she didn’t teach Ernestine anything. Ernestine is just starting to think critically about the world, she says.
Meanwhile, the Holy Communion Banquet is fast approaching. One morning, the Crumbs prepare to go to the Peace Mission building to make sure everything is in order for Father Divine’s upcoming visit. Lily, however, won’t be going the Peace Mission. She’s too hungover from the night before, having been out all night dancing with an attractive Cuban man. As Ernestine and Ermina get ready to leave for the Peace Mission, she tells them about her night, grabbing Ernestine and showing her how to do the mambo. Soon enough, though, Godfrey comes in and puts an end to their fun. When he tries to shame her for drinking, she laughs him off and starts talking about how he used to like to feel her thigh when he was drunk. As they argue, Godfrey desperately tries to send his daughters out of the room. Soon enough, Lily asks if he wants her to apologize, saying that she’d oblige this wish if that’s what he wants. She then kisses him, and though he eventually pulls away, he can’t help but give in for a moment before cutting it off. After pulling away, he tells Lily that if she’s going to live with them, she needs to respect his rules. Before he started following Father Divine, the only thing he could do to handle his grief was drink. But finding the Peace Mission Movement helped him change. Still, he finds great temptation in Lily’s presence. As he explains this temptation, he talks about the smell of sweat and alcohol, grabbing Lily and ecstatically dancing with her for a moment before breaking off and rushing out of the apartment.
Godfrey doesn’t return for several days, and when he does come back, he has a new wife. Her name is Gerte, and she’s a white German woman he met on the subway. She was lost, so she decided to go with him to the Peace Mission building. They hit it off, and now they’re married. As Godfrey introduces Gerte to his daughters, they find it impossible to match his excitement—they can’t believe he would remarry even though their mother hasn’t even been dead a full year. Perhaps even more shocking, though, is that their father would marry a white woman. And yet, it’s not all that surprising in the context of Godfrey’s worship of Father Divine, who married a white woman himself. Lily, for her part, is offended by the fact that Godfrey has taken a new wife without considering her as a possibility. However, she continues to stay in the apartment, tolerating Gerte’s presence even if she often picks fights with her.
On the day of the Holy Communion Banquet, the Crumps go to the Peace Mission and set out an enormous amount of food in anticipation of Father Divine’s arrival. But Father Divine never comes. He apparently got a flat tire in New Jersey, and though Ermina points out that he’d be able to somehow fly to the Peace Mission if he were really God, Godfrey doesn’t listen to her—he just tells her to be patient, assuring her that Father Divine will find a way. When it becomes clear even to him that Father Divine won’t be coming, though, he moans about all the questions he has for him. He needs Father Divine’s answers, he says, otherwise he won’t be able to “move on” with his life.
In the coming weeks, Ernestine continues to work on her graduation dress. She and Ermina have not warmed up to Gerte, who tries hard to get them to open up. As Ernestine works on her dress and Gerte chops cabbage one day, Lily stumbles in drunk and starts an argument with Gerte, who points out that Lily hasn’t been talking much these days about going to the Communist Party’s headquarters. And it’s true: Lily has been spending most of her time drinking and partying. Lily responds by criticizing Gerte’s worldview, implying that she doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a Black person in the United States. Gerte tries to claim that she doesn’t see race, but Lily, Ernestine, and Ermina all make it quite clear that this is a ridiculous thing to say—something only a person who has never experienced racism would say. Upset, Gerte leaves the room. But the conversation has also frustrated Lily, who takes her anger out on Ernestine by criticizing the lace she’s sewing onto her dress—lace that Ermina stole for her because it’s so perfect and because their mother always wanted her to have a beautiful graduation gown. Deeply hurt, Ernestine rips the lace off the dress.
Soon after, a group of white racists attack Godfrey on the subway. The white men were insulting him and Gerte, and when he made it clear to them that Gerte was his wife, they became enraged and smashed a Coke bottle on his head. Godfrey and Gerte now rush into the apartment, and Gerte has to restrain Godfrey from running back outside to track down his attackers. Gerte is astounded and can’t believe that such a thing has happened, but everyone else understands that being in an interracial relationship is—unfortunately—dangerous in 1950s American society. Ernestine finally loses her temper and yells at Gerte, telling her that she hates her and that she’s the reason this happened. Godfrey tries to tell her to stop, but Lily jumps in and defends Ernestine. Godfrey counters by criticizing Lily’s progressive worldview, but she points out that this is perfectly emblematic of everything that’s wrong in the United States: a Black man is bleeding from the head for being married to a white woman, who sits next to him completely unharmed. The argument continues until Godfrey tells Lily that she needs to leave—he can’t maintain his life or his marriage to Gerte if she stays.
At the end of the play, Ernestine directly addresses the audience and explains that she graduates high school and then goes to Harlem, wanting to track down Lily. When she can’t find her, she asks around, asking people about where she should go to join the revolution. One bartender gives her an address, which turns out to be the address of City College. Ernestine enrolls and graduates, going on to become a civil rights activist. Ermina, for her part, has a baby before Ernestine graduates college. She’s also the one who ends up identifying Lily’s dead body, learning that their aunt died of drug abuse. Lastly, Godfrey stays married to Gerte and continues to live in Brooklyn.