Although I am frequently moved by theatrical experiences, there are those rare and special moments when you see something that touches you so deeply you feel you have been transformed. I saw one of the two final performances of The Grapes of Wrath this week at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and I have been transfixed by the experience ever since.
John Steinbeck published the book The Grapes of Wrath, 75 years ago this month. The themes of the play are so universal that the story of the Joad family living in the forties is nearly as relevant to our lives today as it was when it first entered our cultural lexicon. The book was an immediate hit with waiting lists at local libraries; however, while it inspired so much appreciation from its fans, it also elicited a great deal of hatred and anger, and as a result is one of the most banned books in American history. The truth can be a dangerous thing for those who do not want to hear it. Interestingly, the Joads find themselves confronting truth-tellers along their journey who try to warn them that the promises of jobs and security in California are not what they seem. And Steinbeck’s masterpiece is a frank reminder of the darkness that can overtake men’s souls when resources are scarce. It is hard to dwell in that place where you are so keenly aware of that reality.
The story of a family who lose their home to a bank following an environmental disaster feels eerily familiar having just lived through the 2008 housing crash as well as the multitude of floods and hurricanes that have been leveling whole communities in our country on an all too frequent basis. The Joads become homeless and must pack up all their worldly possessions in a truck to travel across the country in the hope of finding jobs and a brighter future.
The Joads, and the other migrants seeking work, experience the criminalization of being poor in a very stark way, as they travel from camp to camp simply searching for a quiet night’s rest and a place to eat. Their camps are frequently broken up and burned by police officers looking for someone to blame for the misery that surrounds them. And, our treasured freedoms of speech and assembly are merely the stuff of dusty aspirational documents and not a part of the migrant experience. Everyone who speaks up against the exploitation of labor winds up dead or on the run.
When Tom Joad meets up with his family’s preacher, who is re-examining his relationship with spirituality, he says, “maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit – the human sperit – the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” He speaks the language of peace and justice that is so modern and yet in sharp contrast to the rugged individualism that has been such a dominant part of American culture, particularly in more recent years. So, we need to rediscover and reclaim this important part of Americana in this the 75th year of Grapes publication.
At OCEP, we are examining the ever-present problems of poverty, food instability, and the criminalization of homelessness as part of our poverty initiative and assessing how the University can engage with the community in constructive dialogue about the causes, consequences, and best ways to alleviate poverty. Shortly, we will be releasing the first report of The Poverty of Poverty Intervention: Doing More With Less.
Stay tuned to “The Catalyst” as we continue this conversation.