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.‘Mother Road’ Weaves Traumatic Tales of Migration

Playwright Octavio Solis writes contemporary Mexican-American sequel to John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’

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Playwright Octavio Solis has an epic, large, dark heart—much like the bedrock of Mother Road, his play now on stage at Berkeley Rep. Beholden to, but springing beyond the larger-than-life tale and tone of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, Grapes of Wrath, Mother Road weaves a similarly traumatic story of the Joad family’s displacement and trauma, but is in no way an adaptation.

“I say Mother Road is a sequel,” Solis suggests in an interview. “My Tom Joad is his descendant, Martin Jodes, a migrant Mexican-American worker. It is a polemic. In Steinbeck’s story, the family traveled from their Oklahoma farm to Bakersfield and as they did, the family disintegrated. In my story, Jodes and William (Joad) follow Route 66 from California to Sallisaw, and accumulate family.”

About the language used in his play, he says, “It doesn’t feel like what Steinbeck would write; it’s my voice. But as long as I stayed true to Joad’s addressing injustice where he sees it and to Steinbeck’s principle of showing great love amid great grief and trauma, I could do no wrong.”

Whereas Steinbeck’s novel takes place in the 1930s, when Dust Bowl storms and famine drove people to abandon farms and businesses in search of jobs and opportunities, Solis’ play is set in the present. During the journey, Martin and Williams fight, encounter setbacks with the law and with strangers, experience racism and homophobia, and attract a hodgepodge chorus of poetry-reciting ghosts. Magical realism, often an element in Solis’ work, floats under the surface, but never obscures themes of gritty survivalism, humanity and humor.

“The play takes place on a mythic scale,” Solis says. “American history is the history of trauma. It’s people suffering and being taken advantage of. We’re still dealing with that. The two men and the characters they take on all stay in the truck, behind a fourth wall, but the chorus is like a talking headline and speaks directly to the audience. They break down all the walls.”

In his play, Solis portrays Oklahoma as a netherworld; a place where there is no sun and no day, only night. There is no water, and accumulated dust—literal and metaphorical—is prevalent.

During the trip, the two men carry the vestiges of their ancestors inside them. As they shed the residue of dead relatives, and in defiance of continued prejudice, they find ways to heal. The story is political, but not mired in presidents, wars and scandal. Solis insists the message is about breaking a cycle and returning to a homeland to create a new, inclusive space. 

“The truck is named Cesar, after (civil rights activist) Cesar Chavez,” Solis says. “It’s the new ideals of Chavez and the farmworker who has Mexican in him but also Oklahoma deep in his bones and DNA. Martin and William can make a new farm in middle America, plant a rainbow flag for Latinos, African Americans, non-binary people and Native Americans.”

Production elements include music that blends Latino and American cultural influences. Cesar, the truck that Solis likens to a character, the ship upon which the actors sail, serves as the physical centerpiece. Joining as passengers are, among others, a preacher who finds religion in earth, farming and being a good custodian of Mother Nature.

“The voice he hears, Mama Earth, speaks of alarming things, because what we’re experiencing with climate change now is alarming,” Solis says. “Agriculture is getting it all wrong. Brother James is like their mystic preacher who steers their consciousness in the right direction. He says, ‘You gotta do this right, or you’re in for a Dust Bowl in the Central Valley.’ There’s fire and poisoning, with chemicals pumped into the earth.”

Solis says the play is “sharper, leaner and meaner,” than when it premiered in 2018/19 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. “I knew it wasn’t done,” he says. “I reworked it with David (Mendizábal) and did it between then and now in places where it wouldn’t get a lot of critical attention. People who saw it before won’t notice the exact difference, but they’ll feel it.”

Audiences today have traveled through Covid and the murders of George Floyd and other unarmed people of color at the hands of police. Everyone, regardless of age, gender, race or other factors, is continually forced to digest—or tune out—distorted rhetoric about immigration, race, truth, dignity, sexual identity, family dynamics and more.

“I think audiences are scarred, so they’ll relate on a deeper level,” Solis says. “They will automatically know, after the wildfires and especially George Floyd, the messages. How will a white audience respond? They’re a much more enlightened audience. What the pandemic will change is that they share the moment together. We told people to stay away from theaters for two years because we had to shut down. We told them to go watch TV.”

The pandemic threw a deadbolt on Solis. He contracted the virus and lived through Long Covid for two years. “I froze up and had writer’s block,” he says. “I got it bad and had hair falling out, exhaustion, memory loss and couldn’t write. You know, I don’t write my plays for Broadway. I write for the community I live in. They’re not plays about the upper echelons of society. These are workers, people struggling. Even William, who has 5,000 acres, lives modestly. His wealth is in his land, not his bank.”

Once again comfortable and writing, Solis sees Mother Road as the first play in a trilogy. The next play, Father Land, is underway and written for SF Playhouse. He’s keeping his preliminary thoughts about the third play close to the vest. None of the shows will lean into AI, a thunderstorm no longer simply looming on the horizon of the theater industry, but now making inroads.

“If you’re doing true theater, AI has no place,” Solis says. “There’s technologies you can use for dramatic lighting and sound layering, but there’s nothing like flesh and blood and human beings talking to each other, kissing. When Romeo kisses Juliet in Shakespeare, you hear people shrieking. When someone is stabbed and there’s fake blood, people still gasp, react in a visceral way.”

Solis says many theaters are trying to entice audiences back to the theater with happy plays—musical, family-friendly shows. “There has to be room for things not for kids, for horrid things and how we’re implicit in our own moral and environmental demise,” he says. “There have to be hard, experimental works that require attention. 

“My next play is written entirely in Spanish about undocumented day laborers being exploited by employers and gangs that brought them here,” Solis continues. “They’re part of white slavery, with stories that don’t end well. Even Mother Road is epic tragedy. We come by wisdom through trauma, not ease.”

Even so, bliss resides in a play’s honesty and humor—and the shared experience of live theater. “It’s communal, with moments experienced together,” Solis says. “A film theater can be entirely empty and the film playing is unchanged. But in live theater, audiences cough, laugh, applaud spontaneously, stay quiet or walk out and emit energy actors can feel that changes the performance. There’s nothing like it.”

Speaking about future works he is writing or plans to write, Solis says exploring new ideals and creating worlds that promise humankind a lasting future are the only paths on his roadmap. “Mother Road says, ‘Be ready, there’s changes coming,’” he says. “It’s an American story told by a Latino worker. My job is to listen to the characters, respond faithfully. Grapes of Wrath and Mother Road are metaphors for anyone victimized who has to leave work, home, family. It’s our quintessential American tragedy.”

‘Mother Road,’ through July 21; Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. 510.647.2949.

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