Same Grapes, Different Dayposted on March 10th, 2011 by Brandon Monokian
Government versus union, natural disasters damaging the economy, people going hungry and living on the streets…sounds like the front page of the New York Times on any given day. What it also sounds like is the new Montclair State University production of The Grapes of Wrath.
Whoa, wait a minute—you mean that old-as–Larry King book they made you read back in high school? That’s the one. The 1930s John Steinbeck classic was adapted for stage by Frank Galati in 1988, and it is now playing at the Alexander Kasser Theater from March 9th through the 12th. While the theatrical material may be drawing from a 1930s novel, you might be surprised to learn that the content is just as relevant today as it was when first published.
“This started with the Dust Bowl,” says Grapes of Wrath director Susan Kerner about where trouble began for the play’s characters. Like Hurricane Katrina or the earthquakes in Haiti, the 1930s Dust Bowl was a natural disaster that demolished the lives of almost everyone who experienced it. To prepare the cast, Kerner, alongside dramaturg Kristen Hariton, showed the ensemble of actors a documentary called Surviving The Dust Bowl. “People were interviewed that were children at the time… Until you see this documentary, you hear about the Dust Bowl, but you have no idea how bad it was,” says Kerner. The film gives its audience visuals of black dust rising miles in the air, enveloping anything in its way. You hear firsthand accounts of the disease and poverty. You see thousands of jackrabbits overtake towns, scavenging for food, because they, too, had been affected.
Parallels between issues presented in the show and issues we as a global community face today extend far beyond that of natural disasters. “Unionization is a huge factor in the second half of the play,” explains Hariton. “Around the time of Grapes of Wrath is when unions really started to form.”
Kerner echoes Hariton’s focus on unions. “There was huge opposition to forming unions and a huge fear of people getting together to protest, and that is the case with a lot of these countries today in the Middle East. All over the world, people are realizing that if they get together as one voice, they can make change. In Egypt, in the Middle East…even now in Wisconsin, people are striking because of the education cuts.”
Although both director and dramaturg are passionate about the importance of presenting this play now because of its clear relevance to current social situations, don’t expect to see these parallels blatantly highlighted by this production. When Kerner was first presented with the opportunity to mount this theater piece, she spoke with Hariton about ideas of incorporating modern-world images as a backdrop to the classic work; however, as their creative process evolved, she decided against it. “That was my first thought, to make it universal. But as I really started working on the script I thought, ‘This isn’t fair. You have to really do the play and not layer all this stuff on top of it. You have to respect the novel and the play, and if you do the play as is and set it very specific in its time and place, it will have resonance. The more specific you make it, the more universal it will be.’”
Although many of these present-to-past parallels are heavy subjects to think about, one thing Hariton wants the audience to leave with is the congruency between the hopeful attitudes of the play’s characters and the hope radiating from so many people experiencing tragedy in today’s world. “There are so many things we can draw on from the human experience that have been happening recently that are parallel with Grapes. It’s about family…whether that’s a nuclear family, like the characters in the play, or a country. It’s about people bonding together.”
To make her dramaturgical work accessible to the cast, Hariton created an online blog, a practice she first developed during her dramaturgical debut last year with a production of The Laramie Project. She shared an experience with me that she also shared with the cast through her blog. “I took a trip to New Orleans and was able to visit the Ninth Ward. It’s so strange to see people who are so happy and who want you to be there that still have to go home to wreckage everyday. It reminded me so much of the family in the play. They have this warrior face on when [they] experience tragedy.”
Kristen Hariton’s blog can be viewed at http://grapesatmsu.tumblr.com/.
Brandon Monokian received a B.A. in Theatre Studies at Montclair State. He works as an actor, director, writer and T-shirt designer.