John Steinbeck’s American masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath” has been lauded as a quintessential story of the American migrant. Centering on the Joad family’s harrowing journey along Route 66 (the “Mother Road”), Steinbeck paints a rich landscape of the hardships faced by Dust Bowl farmers forced to leave their homes in search of work and security.
Steinbeck’s migrant saga lives on today, not in the lives of white farmers, but in the experiences of Mexican migrant workers making their way along the Central valley in search of the harvest. Playwright Octavio Solis explores this evolution in “Mother Road,” opening at Arena Stage on February 7.
The show follows the imaginary descendants of “The Grapes of Wrath’s” protagonist, Tom Joad. When an heirless, dying William Joad looks for kin to inherit his Oklahoma farm, he is chagrined to discover that Tom’s only direct living descendant is a Mexican-American migrant worker, Martín Jodes. The two make their way from California to Oklahoma in a transformative road trip along Route 66: the reverse trip made by the migrants in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Where Steinbeck’s Joads lose family members along the journey, Solis’ Joads take on passengers and form what he calls “the new American family.”
Solis was inspired to write the play while on a Route 66 road trip sponsored by the National Steinbeck Center. As Solis and other artists retraced the Joad’s journey from Oklahoma to California, they asked people they met along the way if they had read “The Grapes of Wrath.” The only person who had was a young migrant worker Solis encountered at the urban migrant camp where Steinbeck’s novel ends. Once a haven for displaced Okies, the camp is now a home to Mexican migrant workers.
“He recited [“Grapes of Wrath”] passages back to us by heart,” Solis says. “He knew it so well. And he said, “This book is about me. I’m the new Tom Joad, and we’re the new Okies.” I was so stirred by that, because it was something I should have recognized from the beginning, and it didn’t land on me until then. And I said, “I know what my play is going to be about.””
Like “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Mother Road” uses its central storyline as a personification of larger societal struggles. It’s not just about the reconciliation of the Joad family; it’s about discriminated, overlooked populations across the country “stepping out of their bubbles” to find common ground and heal. Playing off Steinbeck’s “gorgeous, humane” prosaic passages that detail the tribulations of Dust Bowl migrants, Solis explores the prejudice faced by rural Americans and people of color through a modern Greek chorus.
“Mother Road’s” premiere reception at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was overwhelmingly positive, director Bill Rauch says, with some audience members coming back multiple times during the show’s run. Bringing it to DC is an exciting opportunity to expose Beltway insiders to Solis’ snapshot of Americana.
“I think it’s really impactful to tell this story as we continue to wrestle with the large questions about who we are as a nation,” Rauch says. “Who are we now? Who are we becoming? I think a play that digs into who belongs in this country and what it means to be an American is an urgent story.”