Through Bebop and Memory, a Coming-of-Age Play Offers a Remedy for the Problem of Race

Crumbs from the Table of Joy

The American Dream. Racial upheaval. The struggle for survival. Though set in the 1950s, the play “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” opening April 11 in Allen Theatre, has themes that deeply resonate with the issues of our day, according to Saundra McClain who is directing students in this final play of the Pomona College Theatre Department’s 2018-2019 season.

In this coming-of-age play written by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage, an African American family — comprised of 17-year-old Ernestine, her younger sister and her recently widowed father — moves from Florida to Brooklyn in the father’s quest to follow the teachings of televangelist Father Divine. The girls’ aunt arrives advocating communism, sexual freedom and the Civil Rights Movement. Then comes a German immigrant stepmother. Ernestine struggles to adjust to all of these cultural shifts and tensions by escaping into the fantasy world of film.

For McClain, a prolific actress who is guest directing at Pomona College for the first time, the problem of race in the play is the same problem of race today. 

“It’s always been a racially tense time. This country has never dealt with the cancer that was part of it: The genocide and the slavery. This country has never faced up to the fact that it has done harm. The wound is festering, and all that garbage is coming to the surface. Nothing has really changed.”

McClain, who describes Nottage’s “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” as “lyrical and gorgeous,” says there is a line that says the world is something like bebop.

“When you listen you really hear the melody lines of each instrument, and when you listen it seeps into the main melody line.”

McClain uses bebop as a thread throughout the play and notes that even in the character Ernestine’s fantasy moments, she is still listening to everything that is going on around her. “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” is a memory play, with Ernestine recounting events, both as they happened and as she imagined them. But that bebop-like thread is always there, with Ernestine attuning her ear to the melodies.

“She begins to listen and learn from everything that happens to her family, to us as a people and to grow from it,” says McClain.

McClain sees that same kind of listening as the remedy for society today.

“This country is a melting pot of people and if we all respect each other we can make beautiful music. Otherwise it’s a dissonance.”

McClain notes the persistence of Ernestine through every situation. Although she escapes into film with all its happily-ever-after endings, Ernestine realizes that’s not real life and she can’t escape her problems, she has to face them.

McClain says race is something the U.S. needs to face. Perhaps Ernestine’s response to her struggles is a lesson for the country: “It doesn’t defeat her.”

“Crumbs from the Table of Joy” runs April 11-14 in Allen Black Box Theatre in Seaver Theatre (300 E. Bonita Ave., Claremont), with showtimes at 8 p.m. on Thursday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $11 general admission and $6 for students, seniors, staff and faculty and can be purchased online or at the box office.