A Route 66 journey to Steinbeck country inspired playwright Octavio Solis’ Mother Road

A Route 66 journey to Steinbeck country inspired playwright Octavio Solis’ Mother Road

“Every memory has a patina of invention on it,” writes Octavio Solis in his memoir, *Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border*. This sentiment encapsulates the essence of Solis’s work, where fiction, mythology, gritty realism, and autobiography coexist. His prolific body of work, which includes more than two dozen theatrical and prose pieces, blends classical Western literature with modern concerns, Latinx mythology, satire, surrealism, and the everyday realities of Chicano working-class life.

This unique blend has culminated in *Mother Road*, an epic play that serves as a Mexican American sequel to John Steinbeck’s *The Grapes of Wrath*. Solis imagines a scenario where Tom Joad, the protagonist of Steinbeck’s novel, fled to Mexico and started a family. The play explores what happens when Tom’s Mexican great-grandson, unaware of his Joad lineage, inherits an Oklahoma farm from his Anglo-American relatives. *Mother Road* premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and continues to captivate audiences.

Solis’s journey to create *Mother Road* began with a Route 66 road trip through Steinbeck country, sponsored by the National Steinbeck Center. This journey retraced the path of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California, collecting oral histories from Dust Bowl survivors and their descendants. The trip was transformative for Solis, especially a visit to a migrant camp filled with Latinx farm workers. One young man at the camp identified with Tom Joad, saying, “We’re the new Okies, and I’m the new Tom Joad.” This encounter inspired Solis to write *Mother Road*.

The play follows Martín Jodes, a young Chicano farmworker, and William Joad, a dying Anglo relative, as they travel from California to Oklahoma along Route 66. William wants Martín to inherit his Oklahoma ranch, and the journey becomes a transformative experience for both. They encounter racism, homophobia, and police brutality, but also form a new kind of American family along the way.

Solis’s work is deeply rooted in his own experiences and the broader Latinx community. Growing up in a working-class Mexican American family in El Paso, Solis captures the friction between Mexico and the U.S. in his vivid personal essays. He is part of a generational cohort of Latinx playwrights, including Luis Alfaro, Nilo Cruz, and Quiara Alegría Hudes, who have significantly impacted American theatre.

Solis’s journey as a playwright began in his 20s, writing to emulate Pinter, Mamet, and Shakespeare. His sensibility was more experimental, influenced by Mac Wellman, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Erik Ehn. However, his connection to the Chicano theatre movement was solidified when Teatro Dallas asked him to write a play for their ensemble. This experience was liberating for Solis, leading him to write *Man of the Flesh* and eventually move to San Francisco to be closer to the Magic Theatre and Intersection for the Arts.

Another formative experience was a playwrights-in-residence lab led by Cuban American dramatist Maria Irene Fornés at INTAR. Fornés’s exercises taught Solis that writing involves the whole body, not just the mind. This lesson was transformational for him, as was his commission from El Teatro Campesino, where he worked with founder Luis Valdez on the play *Prospect*.

Solis’s dynamic voice embraces poetic lyricism and realism, often exploring legend and myth rather than polemics. His play *Santos y Santos* melds Shakespearean power struggles with contemporary El Paso drug traffickers, while *Lydia* portrays a working-class Chicano family in El Paso dealing with personal and societal challenges.

*Mother Road* departs from Solis’s usual internal monologues and poetic sensibilities to tell an on-the-road story of discovery. The play addresses contemporary issues, including the current crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Solis feels a responsibility to speak out, especially as his own culture faces attacks.

Director Bill Rauch, who has worked with Solis on several projects, praises Solis’s ability to convey moral outrage about economic injustice, much like Steinbeck’s *The Grapes of Wrath*. Rauch believes *Mother Road* is an urgent story that digs into who belongs in America and what it means to be an American.

Solis is excited about the ongoing Latinx theatre movement, which has evolved from the 1960s but remains vibrant. He believes it is crucial for Latinx artists to keep their voices heard and stretch the boundaries of what is possible. “We were here before there were borders, before there were white people,” Solis says. “And as artists, our task has never changed: to tell the truth. To show us to ourselves.”

Source: American Theatre, Washingtonian

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top