San Diego Rep’s ‘Mother Road’ a modern sequel to John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’

San Diego Repertory Theatre's "Mother Road" cast in a car together
San Diego Repertory Theatre’s “Mother Road” cast members, from left, Mark Murphey, Yadira Correa, Richard Jessie Johnson, Cedric Lamar and Celeste Lanuza.
(Rich Soublet Photography)

Octavio Solis play imagines what would happen if the Joad family’s last descendant was a Mexican-American farmworker


At the end of John Steinbeck’s epic 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” disillusioned “Okie” Tom Joad leaves his family in Central California to devote himself to social justice for workers. But what if Joad’s journey took him to Mexico, where he fell in love with a Mexican woman and their descendants returned to California as migrant workers?

That’s the set-up for “Mother Road,” a 2019 play by Texas-born Octavio Solis who is one of the nation’s most prolific Mexican-American playwrights. “Mother Road” opened San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 2021-22 season on Oct. 7.. In the play, terminally-ill William Joad needs to find an heir to take over the Joad family farm in Sallisaw, Okla., that his ancestors abandoned during the Depression and Dust Bowl era to migrate west to California.

That’s when William meets Martin Jodes, a young Mexican-American farmworker who is the last surviving Joad descendant. Together, William and Martin set off from California to Oklahoma, re-tracing backward Ma and Pa Joad’s cross-country journey with their family on the old Route 66, which Steinbeck called the “Mother Road” in his novel. Along the way, several passengers from different multicultural backgrounds join William and Martin’s quest to reach the farm. In the bleak “Grapes of Wrath,” the Joad family is gradually winnowed down by deaths on their way to California. But in the more uplifting “Mother Road,” the new Joad family expands as it nears Oklahoma.

Solis got the idea for the play — which will be the first in a trilogy — during a 2013 road trip he took with staff members of the National Steinbeck Center and some fellow artists and book publishers. During their two-week caravan, the group followed the same route the Joads traveled from their fictional farm in Sallisaw to the historic Sunset Camp in Kern County, which Steinbeck memorialized in his novel. The camp is still used today to house migrant workers.

While Solis was touring the camp eight years ago, he met a young man in his 20s named Jorge Guillon, who said he went from picking crops as a boy to becoming a spoken-word poet and advocate for migrant workers.

“He’d read the novel and could cite passages from memory for us,” Solis said of Guillon. “He related to the novel because he said ‘we are the new Okies and I am the new Tom Joad.’ It hit me like a thunderbolt. I knew right then I had to tell his story and connect it with all the things that happened on our journey.”

“Mother Road” had its first reading at the Steinbeck Center in 2014. Then, after a several workshops, it premiered two years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., where Solis and his wife (retired attorney Jeanne Sexton) moved six years ago after 25 years in San Francisco. He hopes audiences can see how even though America has changed since the 1930s, the American dream survives.

“The message of John Steinbeck’s novel was to see the humanity in every person and their dreams and needs,” Solis said. “He was an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised and had a special connections with Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals. I feel like I’m part of that legacy, as well, by offering a vision of a new American family.”

The San Diego Rep production will be the first remount of “Mother Road” since the pandemic began. It is the fourth Solis play that the Rep has produced since the early 1990s, including “El Paso Blue,” “Burning Dreams” and “Man of the Flesh.” Rep co-founder and longtime artistic director Sam Woodhouse is directing the production, which features nine actors.

Woodhouse has fond memories of childhood visits to his maternal grandparents’ farm in the Western Oklahoma town of Granite. He also has a fondness for Solis’s plays.

“His writing is epic, mystical and ruggedly poetic, with gritty realism, soaring language and primal energies clashing,” Woodhouse said. “ ‘Mother Road’ is about who you meet on the road of life and the pursuit of the American dream and the promised land.”

‘Mother Road’

When: Previews Oct. 7 through 12. Opens Oct. 13 and runs through Oct. 31. Showtimes: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Where: San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown

COVID policy: Full vaccination required or negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of curtain. Face masks required.

Tickets: $25-$80

Phone: (619) 544-1000