The Grapes of Wrath

An adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath at the UK’s first Theatre of Sanctuary provokes questions about public apathy towards migrants

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When John Steinbeck visited the camps that housed thousands of migrants who had been victims of the Dust Bowl crisis, he wrote that he wanted to “put a tag of shame on these greedy bastards who are responsible for this”.

His fury encouraged him to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, and Steinbeck wove his criticism of the banks and corporate greed into his fiction – leading right-wing critics to label him a “liar” and a “communist”.

During the 1930s approximately 3.5 million Americans were forced to abandon their homes in states such as Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas after a series of dust storms caused severe droughts.

The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they leave their farm in Oklahoma and head to California in search of jobs, land, dignity and a future. But arriving in the West Coast, the Joads soon realise that life as migrant workers brings trials and tribulations on a whole new scale.

During his time in the camps, Steinbeck witnessed infant mortality, disease and starvation. Abbey Wright, who is directing an adaptation of Steinbeck’s book for the stage, says that although the book was written almost 80 years ago, its themes still bear relevance in the present day.

“One of the things that Steinbeck was so appalled by was society’s indifference,” says Wright. “People had it on their radar that this was happening but it was just part of the status quo somehow, and one thing that Steinbeck said was that we are all too willing to accept an underclass.

“And that struck me to the core, because I thought yeah, I am guilty. I will give to charity and have a conscience, but I suppose I don’t know what to do other than accept it, and we do all happily accept that there are different groups in the world that are afforded different entitlements and different allowances.

“The Joads undertake this journey into the unknown – 2,000 miles of travel, right across the continent to California on the promise of a golden life and work, prosperity, health and a future, and I suppose I feel that speaks to what is happening at the moment all around Europe and the world. I was very interested in that and the extraordinary parallels.”

The production will be performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which has been named the UK’s first Theatre of Sanctuary after developing a community outreach programme to support refugees and asylum seekers.

Community chorus member Morteza is a refugee who moved to the UK in 2004. He says the play’s message resonates with his own experience of migration.

“The play is about people who migrate for a better life and I can definitely relate to it,” he says. “It’s about being in difficulty and wanting to make a change and finding that there are obstacles.

“It’s so easy to forget how fortunate you are. I hope that comes across to the audience – to appreciate the good things you have in your life and the fortunate position you are in. That’s one thing that I hope comes across. And the other side is the humanity, the support people have for each other and the kindness, even in times of difficulty.”

The Grapes of Wrath is at West Yorkshire Playhouse on 24 May-10 June

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