Photos by Jenny Graham | The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
By Alan Haffa
Imagine John Steinbeck meeting Cesar Chavez and you’ll have some idea what “Mother Road” is all about.
The play, inspired by John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” premiered this summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The seed of the production was planted in 2013 by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, when Octavio Solis and two other creative artists were invited to commemorate the 75th anniversary of “The Grapes of Wrath” by retracing the steps of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California.
Five years later, on the 80th anniversary, that seed has grown into a wonderful play that captures the revolutionary spirit of Steinbeck’s story recast in the context of America’s more diverse racial makeup today.
In many ways, “Mother Road” rights the wrongs of “The Grapes of Wrath” and confronts the heartbreak, tragedy and injustice that pains our country. The hero, Tom Joad, was outraged by the social and economic injustice endured by Oklahomans thrust into poverty not only by the Dust Bowl but also by predatory bankers. The hard-working sharecroppers fled Oklahoma as immigrants, seeking work and a better life. Steinbeck showed the unfairness and hardness of their lives on the road and in California. The labor of the Oklahoman immigrants was exploited and they were forced to live in encampments outside of town. The Joad family sought refuge in a government-run camp in Bakersfield called Weedpatch.
“Mother Road” opens at Weedpatch’s Arvin Farm Labor Center as the last descendent of the Oklahoma Joad family, William, meets with his only living relative, Martin Jodes, a young Mexican-American man who is the grandson of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad.
William Joad is dying of cancer and is looking for his last remaining family relation to come back and run the Joad family farm after he dies. When they meet, it is evident that the differences in age, race and culture make William and Martiin an unlikely pair. But as the two men travel in “Cesar,” a beat-up pickup, from Bakersfield to Needles to Flagstaff to Albuquerque and finally to Oklahoma, they discover that, despite their differences, they are both Joads through and through.
In modern America, where there are so many mixed-race families, the challenges of communication across these divides are real. “Mother Road” dramatizes those very real family obstacles. William and Martin have experienced sorrow and carry the wounds of these heartaches with them; only when they open up and share their burdens with each other do they come together as a family.
But “Mother Road” is more than just William and Martin; they are joined on the road trip by a diverse cast of characters who will run the farm after William inevitably passes. They include Martin’s “cousin,” a woman named Mo who is another migrant farmer and who understands the land. She will be Martin’s foreperson — but William must first get over the facts that Mo is a lesbian who wants to turn his homestead into an organic farm. She became family when Martin took her in off the street to save her life.
Another friend of Martin’s who joins the journey is James, an African American who battled with addiction and who is now full of spiritual love and love for the earth. The final companion is Curtis, part Choctaw, a ranch hand who joins the group as the play progresses.
Steinbeck’s novel called out social inequality. 'Mother Road' does something similar but in a more expansive and intersectional way.
There are many mysteries uncovered — and objects that carry symbolic significance, including a box and a Bible — that are in the end explained with great emotional impact. As the mysteries are answered, William and Martin discover how much alike they are: they are both Joads, after all. Both are driven to fight against injustice and both are moved by love for family and fellowmen.
Steinbeck’s novel was revolutionary because it called out social inequality in America and showed it to us in realistic detail. “Mother Road” does something similar but in a more expansive and intersectional way. As badly as “Okies” were treated, they were treated better than African Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans.
So at the end, when Martin speaks movingly about how “we are all Mexicans,” he speaks for all of us who are mistreated by our bosses, all of us who are beaten by the authorities, all of us who have our land and rights stolen. We are “all Mexicans.” At a time in our history where Latin-American immigrants are being scapegoated for all of our problems, Solis’s message rings true.
And how beautiful, uplifting and fitting it is that two Mexican-Americans, one of them a lesbian, an African-American man, and a Native American man are going to run the Joad family farm after William passes away. Before he dies, William refers to them all as “family” and it feels like a family, an American family. Solis’s work evokes tears of joy and sadness, but it also offers a bit of hope that we may be able to heal our nation and our land if we can see past our differences.
The casting was outstanding and all of the actors were great, but special commendation is owed to Tony Sancho and Mark Murphey, the actors who play Martin and William. Amy Lizardo as Mo brings in some much-needed humor.
The staging, props, costuming and set evoke a sense that the audience is exploring, with the characters, the past and the present of the American Southwest.
“Mother Road” is the final play in this year’s Ashland program, directed by Bill Rauch, who has been artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for 12 years. He will leave after this season to be the first director of the new World Trade Center Performing Arts Center in New York. Rauch’s direction brings Solis’ script to life and creates the sense of a road trip with all that entails — adventure, self-discovery and growth.
Solis deserves much credit for creating a “Grapes of Wrath” for our age, one that is multicultural and confronts race in a way designed to make a white audience recognize privilege without intending to shame them.
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