By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, Chicago Crusader
You may have grown up thinking that “The Grapes of Wrath” was about poor white people, but in an updated take on this classic story, director Erica Weiss has assembled a multicultural cast to bring the plight of a family on the move into the 21st Century.
She spoke with the Crusader about the production and the need for diversity in 2016. “There was never a possibility that this would be an all-white production. In this day and age, with the story already having been told with that casting, it was never a question that we would have a multi-cultural and inclusive cast,” Weiss said. “All of our casting and storytelling is based on researched true history. The question became, what artistic and conceptual choices do I make to support and highlight that casting?”
This wasn’t an easy feat, given the place in history that “The Grapes of Wrath” holds. “Working with an existing piece, both the original novel and the stage adaptation, to tell a new iteration of the story, is a challenge. As someone who mainly works on new plays, I had never done a classic piece like this – and I think that was an advantage,” Weiss added. “I had no attachment to presenting this story in a way that resembled previous productions. Early on, I said to the cast that we would be imposing about as much additional subtext to the material that it could handle – but Steinbeck’s writing and the true history of the dustbowl and great migration could accommodate our new ideas. All of our casting and storytelling is based on researched true history, and that grounded our choices in honesty even as we experimented with how to get that across.”
I asked Weiss about this piece, in light of the fact that it’s about a weather-related event, as it relates to other weather-related events, namely Hurricane Katrina, and the way thousands of people either perished or were displaced. “Income inequality, devastating weather events, exploitation of migrant workers, and discrimination against refugee populations – that sounds like a roster of current events. But we’ve been there before, and the dust bowl is a period of American history that we need to connect to what’s happening in our country now,” she added. “But the only way I could think of to make that connection have fresh impact was to show the under-represented faces and voices that have always been a part of our country’s history, who have been written out of the narrative. That’s why we’re telling this story with African-American leads, with a Latino narrator, with gay characters, etc. That is America.”
“The Grapes of Wrath” includes some sensitive scenes, but it was never the director’s intent to exclude them from her production. “I never saw omitting scenes or key moments in the story as an option, but took them as a challenge to show in a new light. Tom’s temper and moments of violence are an integral part of the character – without them, there is no Tom Joad. But presenting that is not so simple when the role is played by an African-American in a mainly Caucasian environment,” she said. “We had to really examine the context and circumstances, the injustice he observes and his fierce insistence to defend his dignity. The breastfeeding image is by far the most fraught element of the play for me. It turns a woman into a symbol, turns her body over to the greater good – and as a feminist, I struggle with that. I’m also reticent to ask performers, particularly women, to do nudity onstage. The actress and I have worked together to explore this as a moment of true agency, and to preserve the scene but protect her from exploitation.”
Finally, Weiss encourages folks to come out and enjoy this latest production of a classic. “This production of “The Grapes of Wrath” is telling true and under-represented stories of American history. We’ve revived the play to highlight perspectives that are not simply white, heterosexual, and male. Fierce love of family and the fight to survive transcends racial barriers in our mixed clan of Joads – we’re looking at this period in a whole new light. But all the things that make “The Grapes of Wrath” powerful are still there – and hopefully resonate for a modern audience in an even stronger way.”
“The Grapes of Wrath” is running through August 14 at The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Avenue. For more information, call 773-283-7071.