Dust bowl drama lives on
In our harsh economic world of huge, impersonal corporations, and individualist, materialist philosophies, we badly need to hear the messages of "The Grapes of Wrath."

"The Grapes of Wrath," the new work premiering at the Minnesota Opera, places economic migration at center stage. The push-and-pull forces that explain it. Its physical deprivations and psychological pain. The redemptive potential for compassion and community-building. All are explored here with an economy of words and powerful music on a visually evocative stage.

In the opera based on John Steinbeck's novel, the Joad family are pushed off their land, victims of both the Dust Bowl and a far-flung banking system that forecloses on them. They join many generations of Americans -- African slaves, Irish housemaids, Chinese railroad builders, Latino farmworkers and laborers -- in leaving home and family behind to struggle for a livelihood. Some moves were involuntary -- slaves immigrating chained to ship holds, and Native Americans forced into compounds on the same Oklahoma territory that the Joads fled, because someone else wanted their land.

The Joads' destination is shaped by recruitment, the voracious appetite of large Western landowners seeking cheap labor to pick their crops. With thousands of other families, they respond to fliers saturating the Dust Bowl landscape. Steinbeck, and librettist Michael Korey, brilliantly show the virulent big-business forces working behind the scenes. When the Joads finally arrive in California, there are too many workers and too much fruit. Tons of plums are burned before their hungry eyes.

The opera portrays the physical deprivation of the journey. How economic refugees have so few resources -- the Joads buy a barely functional truck to convey them West and have no cash to cover contingencies. Two grandparents die on the way, as people die on the migration trail today -- boat people, Mexican workers suffocated in trucks.

And when the Joads arrive in Hooverville, the squatter settlement by the railroad tracks, it's more of the same. Desperate residents try to steal from them. New neighbors are not welcome. Living on the edge pits one group against another. Like Bangladeshis, or Cape Town blacks, or Rio's favela poor today, they claim whatever bit of land they can.

"The Grapes of Wrath" probes the pressures on families in such travail. A man abandons his pregnant wife to return home. An uncle begs for the tiny stash of cash and goes on a drinking binge. An older brother rebuffs his slow-witted sibling, who throws himself into the river. Frustrated men too easily pour their physical power into violence.

In a complex world, it is easy to decry these miseries but harder to stop them. In an early, brilliant scene, the opera manages to put the whole political economy on trial. A farm neighbor who is bulldozing the Joads' repossessed farmhouse says, "It's not my fault." He has also lost his farm and needs the pay. Chorus members move on stage as the local bankers, saying "It's not my fault" -- it's those bankers in Chicago. And so on. The Chicago bankers say, "It's not us, it's the federal government's Securities and Exchange Commission." The SEC managers say, "It's the Congress." The politicians say, "We're just doing the will of the people."

But "The Grapes of Wrath" hands us two routes to redemption. One is the simple compassion of people, even strangers, for each other. Such compassion can begin one-on-one but culminates in movements that offer housing, work and new cultural skills to newcomers, as well as laws that protect the dispossessed. The other is organizing within the community and at the workplace. In "The Grapes of Wrath," a community bands together on a dance floor to resist vigilantes, and Tom Joad vaults the fence between himself, an unwitting strikebreaker, and his old friend, who is protesting farmworker pay and working conditions on the other side.

In our harsh economic world of huge, impersonal corporations, and individualist, materialist philosophies, we badly need to hear the messages of "The Grapes of Wrath." Forced economic migrations are taking place on an even greater scale today, in our own country and elsewhere. And, as in New Orleans, we now have environmental refugees as well, recalling the Dust Bowl Joads. It is difficult to portray the spider's web of economic power that catapults people from one place to another, but the book and the opera do it stunningly. They are worth reading, seeing and hearing, and few will leave the experience without thinking hard about what we can do to change the picture.

Ann Markusen is professor and director of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
- Ann Markusen, Star Tribune, 11 February 2007