“Every memory has a patina of invention on it,” writes Octavio Solis in his poignant and illuminating new memoir, Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border (City Lights Books). “That patina thickens every time we revisit those moments in our past, until they seem more like stories and myths of our formation, more dreamlike and yet more real than what really happened to us. So where is the fact of what actually happened? It’s still there, lost inside of and enhanced by fiction.”
Fiction, mythology, gritty realism, and autobiography have long lived side by side in Solis’s more than two dozen theatrical and prose works. His is a prolific, distinctively adventurous body of work that mingles classical Western lit with modern concerns, Latinx mythology, satire, autobiography, surrealism, and the quotidian realities of Chicano working-class life.
It has all paved the way to Mother Road, an epic new play that conjures a sort of Mexican American sequel to John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. What might have happened, Solis posits, if rabble-rousing Tom Joad fled to Mexico and started a family there? And what if Tom’s Mexican great-grandson never knew about the Joad tributary in his bloodline, until he inherited an Oklahoma spread from that obscured Anglo-American branch of the family? Mother Road began with a journey through Steinbeck country and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last March, where it continues through Oct. 26.
And that’s not the only great book-inspired production of Solis’s making the rounds this season: Quixote Nuevo, his take on Don Quixote set in Texas and featuring Tejano music, is running as a co-production among Hartford Stage in Connecticut (Sept. 19-Oct. 13), Huntington Theatre Company in Boston (Nov. 15-Dec. 8), and the Alley Theatre in Houston (Jan. 17-Feb. 9, 2020).
Working with a broad swath of small and large regional theatres around the country, Solis has forged an ever-evolving authorial voice that freely grazes through different tones, theatrical tactics, and themes. As OSF artistic director, and before that as head of Cornerstone Theater Company, Bill Rauch worked with Solis on several projects before commissioning and directing Mother Road. “Octavio is a true theatre artist,” observed Rauch, who recently left OSF to run the new Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center in New York City. “As is clear in his work, he has a poet’s voice, but I learned quickly in the rehearsal room that he also has a director’s eye. His attention to detail in every aspect of a production, including every design element, and his ability to talk to actors—to communicate clearly and to help them find nuance and meaning—are so effective and helpful.”
Bearded and now silver-haired, equipped with a hearty and generous laugh, a shrewd wit, and at times the wide-eyed wonder of someone much younger and less worldly than himself, Solis grew up in a working-class Mexican American family in the border town of El Paso, a background he captures in the vivid personal essays about his early years collected in Retablos, and which partly shaped him. As Solis explains in Retablos, he is forever a product of “that push and pull, the friction between the tectonic plates that are Mexico and the U.S.,” which “will always create mountains of stress, dislocation, and upheaval among the people who live there.”
As part of a generational cohort that includes Luis Alfaro, Nilo Cruz, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Karen Zacarías, Migdalia Cruz, and Caridad Svich, Solis is now one of the best-known and most-produced Latinx contemporary playwrights in the U.S. Still, it wasn’t until Solis was 30, and his work had already been seen at theatres in Dallas and San Francisco, that he learned about and found identification with the fecund Chicano theatre movement that had earlier taken root in the Western U.S. during the 1960s and ’70s, led by such California-based troupes as El Teatro Campesino, Teatro Visión, and Teatro de las Chicanas.
“I was not connected to it, not schooled in it,” Solis said. “It was a big hole in my development,” Solis said as he sat at a sunny outdoor café in Ashland, Ore., where he lives with his family on a small farm near the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “In my 20s I was writing to emulate Pinter, Mamet, Shakespeare. My sensibility was more experimental, and I felt most comfortable in the world of Mac Wellman, Suzan-Lori Parks, Erik Ehn, and others who came out of that.” That all changed when Teatro Dallas asked him to write a play for their ensemble. He recalled asking, “‘You have a company of Latino actors?’ I was actually surprised to know that. I wrote Man of the Flesh for them and it was liberating. I have never looked back.”
Soon he also had Texas in the rearview mirror. When Magic Theatre mounted Man of the Flesh after its 1988 Dallas run, Solis moved to San Francisco to be closer to the Magic, and to Intersection for the Arts, a multidisciplinary center that presented the premiere of his more abstract piece, Impatiens.
Another formative experience: a playwrights-in-residence lab led by Cuban American dramatist Maria Irene Fornés at INTAR, the Hispanic-identified Off-Broadway theatre. The sessions with Fornés were transformational, he later recalled in an interview for 50playwrights.org: “Irene led us through [movement and breathing] exercises meticulously, giving us time to dream, even if it was about nothing. Gradually, my resistances caved into the revolutionary idea that writing is a process that involves the whole body, not just the mind—that trapped in the balls and sockets of our joints are the people and stories waiting to be shown their place on the page.”
Yet another milestone occurred when he received a commission from El Teatro Campesino, the granddaddy of Chicano theatre troupes, which grew out of the activism of César Chavéz and the United Farm Workers Union. There Solis came under the spell of another Latinx theatre original: the company’s founder-artistic director and Zoot Suit playwright Luis Valdez.
Working on the 1993 play Prospect with Valdez and his troupe in the Old-Worldly Alta California mission town of San Juan Bautista was “one of the truly, truly magical times for me,” Solis recalled. “Luis completely let me do what I wanted to do. But he said bring two notepads, because you’ll be getting a lot of notes. And he gave me a cigar! Working there I realized what an important legacy that theatre is.”
While absorbing many influences along the way, Solis has forged his own dynamic, changeable voice. While he can gracefully embrace poetic lyricism without sacrificing the specifics and textures of realism, he is more interested in legend and myth than in polemics. His Man of the Flesh, for instance, recast the classical Spanish figure of Don Juan as a contemporary Chicano womanizer who meets his romantic match while toiling as a gardener on her wealthy family’s lawn. Santos y Santos, another breakthrough work, melded the dynastic power struggles of Shakespeare history plays with contemporary blind ambition among El Paso drug traffickers. Literary manager Garrett Anderson called the result “a condensed Latinx season of ‘Breaking Bad.’”
One of Solis’s most popular scripts, Santos y Santos is loosely modeled on the actual 1979 murder of a judge, John H. Wood Jr., in San Antonio, Texas, by members of the notorious Chagra crime family. Solis moved the assassination to El Paso, liberally fictionalized the story of Chicano lawyer brothers torn on the fence between law and crime, and pushed it a few years into the 1980s—the decade when “I came into my own,” as he told the Silicon Valley’s Metro newspaper.
Commissioned by the San Francisco company Thick Description, the propulsive drama debuted, co-produced by Campo Santo, in Project Artaud’s cavernous performing space in the Mission District. Embracing the production challenge, Solis “learned the lessons of Shakespeare about how dramatic action creates a world. I realized I didn’t need any sets, just the actors could do this, and the play could be presented anywhere.
“I learned to violate the rules of time and space—that they can be protracted, or that an entire war can happen in two or three lines of dialogue. I learned from movie montage, how to use language as montage. And for the scene of the judge’s assassination, I learned a lot from Julius Caesar.”
A more recent success in a different vein has been Lydia, staged by a dozen companies since its 2008 premiere by the Denver Center Theatre Company. When performed in Seattle two years ago by Strawberry Theatre Workshop, the play impressed as a ravishing and rupturing portrait of a working-class Chicano family in El Paso. Locked in their individual loneliness, each member of this struggling clan carries a heavy psychic burden of fear or rage or longing. When an undocumented Mexican cleaning lady joins the household, she becomes a kind of curandera (healer) who tends to their broken bodies and souls, though she is ultimately at the mercy of la migra (U.S. immigration officials).
Though Lydia resonates with today’s refugee crisis at our border, Solis initially tapped into memories of his father’s life as a hard-working short-order cook, and a family cleaning lady “who was scarcely older than I was when she came to us from Mexico. I was going through puberty at the time, and it was awkward, confusing, but exciting and disturbing having her there, and I wanted to tell that story.” (Among Lydia’s dramatis personae is, unsurprisingly, a sensitive, perplexed teen who loves poetry and tries to tend to his disabled sister and rowdy brother.)
Though he is sometimes pegged as a purveyor of Latin American-style “magical realism,” Solis shrugs off the label as too restrictive. “I’m not a poet, but I do like heightened language that can exist in the theatre. Many plays are sounding more naturalistic these days, more like TV. I still take my cues from Shakespeare. I would rather have the story exist more in the audience’s heads than on a screen.”
Yet Mother Road largely departs from the internal monologues and poetic sensibilities of Lydia to impart an on-the-road story of discovery, both internal and social. Solis had previously adapted some of Steinbeck’s interconnected short stories from the collection Pastures of Heaven for the San Francisco lit-stage troupe, Word for Word. Through that project, he became involved with the National Steinbeck Center, an organization in Salinas, Calif., devoted to the Nobel-winning novelist’s literary legacy.
To honor the 75th anniversary of the towering Grapes of Wrath, the center arranged a 11-day trip in 2013 that would retrace the cross-country route of the fictional Joad family. It would begin in Sallisaw, Okla., in a region where thousands of impoverished, desperate families like the Joads were driven off their farms by the relentless dust storms of the 1930s. The odyssey would end near Bakersfield, Calif., where the Joads found meager agricultural employment but no promised land, and where their radicalized son Tom leaves for parts unknown to fight for workers’ rights.
“I’m going!” declared Solis when he got the invite to share the trip with a filmmaker and other artists in a three-vehicle caravan. As they wound through Oklahoma, Texas, and California, the group collected oral histories from Dust Bowl survivors and their descendants. Recalled Solis, “Some people we met were still upset about Grapes of Wrath. They didn’t like the book, or the term Okies, and didn’t want to be considered ignorant or stupid and dirty.”
But the playwright was particularly struck by a visit to a migrant camp filled with Latinx farm workers: “One young man told me, ‘We’re the new Okies, and I’m the new Tom Joad.’ So I thought, what if Tom had gone to Mexico and married a Mexican woman? What if Tom’s only descendant today was a Mexican living on this side of the border?”
Solis initially wrote Mother Road as “a tone poem, a choral piece” for a National Steinbeck Center festival, in collaboration with El Teatro Campesino. Later he decided to expand it into a full-scale play. He wanted to introduce it “near my home, which is an agricultural community in Oregon. I thought, let me go back and get to know the culture here, because I’m now a member. I live on a farm, and there are Hispanic workers nearby in the pear orchards.”
In Ashland, with an ensemble of OSF actors providing choral narration, theatrical effects, and tackling a slew of supporting roles, Mother Road follows the young Chicano farmworker Martín Jodes on an unexpected trip to the Southwest with William Joad, a dying Anglo relation. With no other blood relations to leave his Oklahoma ranch to, Joad wants Martín to inherit it. After DNA evidence identifies Tom Joad as their common ancestor, the initially skeptical Martín agrees to travel the same route Tom and his kin took to California in the 1930s to check out William’s spread. As they travel the fabled Highway 66 (referenced in Grapes of Wrath as “the Mother Road, the road of flight”), the unlikely cousins spar fiercely and gradually bond, while joined by others on their own quests. They also encounter stark incidents of racism, homophobia, and police brutality.
If Mother Road sounds more directly topical than other prominent Solis plays, it is. The writer is keenly aware of the current crisis at the border with Mexico, with refugees and asylum seekers from dangerous regions of Latin America fleeing to the U.S., only to be turned away, separated from their children, and in many cases enduring miserable conditions in detention camps.
“Sure, this play is in part a reaction to what’s happening at the border,” Solis acknowledged. “This immigration issue has always been there, but now it’s dramatically worse. I can’t help but feel a responsibility to speak out more, now that my own culture is being attacked.”
Said Rauch, “Octavio’s work is rooted in the same moral outrage about economic injustice that makes Grapes of Wrath an American classic. It also brilliantly activates this theme in a contemporary context, conveying the fears and the glorious promise of the particular moment in the United States as we transition from a white majority to a society that will soon be majority people of color.”
Solis is excited that the Latinx theatre movement that started in the 1960s, and at its height comprised dozens of ensembles, is not moribund, though relatively fewer specifically Chicano companies exist today.
“Now many of us are working in TV, in film, and in the larger regional theatres, and it’s incumbent on us to keep our voice heard wherever we work, and to stretch the boundaries of what’s possible,” Solis said. “We were here before there were borders, before there were white people. And as artists our task has never changed: to tell the truth. To show us to ourselves.”
Seattle-based critic Misha Berson is a regular contributor to this magazine.
This story originally incorrectly reported that Mother Road would appear at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre Oct. 28-Nov. 14. Those were the dates of a developmental workshop at the Goodman in 2017.