By Octavio Solis
Directed by Juliette Carillo
October 28 – November 14
Originally commissioned by the National Steinbeck Center, playwright Octavio Solis’ latest work, Mother Road, is inspired by John Steinbeck’s depression-era masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s novel depicts the Joad family’s journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work after they were driven from their home by drought and economic hardship. Set in the present day, Mother Road serves as a reimagining of Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work – one which Solis describes as a kind of “negative image” of the novel.
In the play, farmer William Joad is the last remaining member of a branch of the Joad family who stayed behind in Oklahoma. He fought to hold on to the family farm, and now old, childless and facing down death, William has no blood kin left to whom he can pass down the land. He hires a private detective in hopes of finding another surviving member of the Joad clan. The detective proves successful, but the man he finds is not whom William expected.
Enter Martín Jodes, a young Mexican American man who is descended from Steinbeck’s protagonist, Tom Joad. Tom ran off to Mexico and raised a family there; some of his descendants, including Martín’s mother, returned to California in search of work. And so the aging William Joad meets his long lost cousin Martín Jodes in Weedpatch, California, once the site of the government run work camp where Tom Joad and other farm laborers fleeing the Dust Bowl found work and shelter during the Great Depression. Now that same town is home to migrant farm laborers arriving from across the southern border in search of work in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley—laborers who face many of the same economic hardships, exploitative work conditions and systemic prejudice that Tom Joad and his fellow Okies faced when they migrated to California over 80 years ago.
What follows is a journey not unlike the one the Joads embarked on in The Grapes of Wrath, but this time they’re traveling backwards, from California to Oklahoma, in Martín’s souped-up pickup truck. Mother Road is rendered with a combination of mythic theatricality, precisely observed naturalism and wild raucous humor. Solis’ revisionist look at this quintessentially American story reveals a country that is both changed and unchanged, where the land and the people who labor on it continue to be in peril, but where home and family can mean safety and survival.