Driving Down Arena’s Mother Road with Cedric Lamar

Lamar, Cedric

The Interview: Cedric Lamar Travels Down Arena’s Mother Road

Conducted by Ross

Arriving on the Arena Stage shore is Mother Road, the much anticipated sequel to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, written by the esteemed playwright Octavio Solis (Quixote Nuevo, Se Llama Cristina). The ambitious new play tackles the intersection of family, immigration and the American dream, drenched in the brutality of the past and race relations. Mother Road, after premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, will run solidly down the road at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater February 7-March 8, 2020 at the iconic in-the-round Fichandler Stage.

The play dives into the familial quest of the terminally ill William Joad (Mark Murphey), as he attempts to pass down his Oklahoma family farm to a descendant among the Joads who migrated West.  He is forced to confront legacy and family when he discovers that the only living heir is a Mexican-American named Martin Jodes, played here by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival acting member, Tony Sancho (Mark Taper’s Lydia). The men travel down the complicated and injust Mother Road from California back to Oklahoma forging an unlikely bond as they come to terms with their troubled past.

I have been a fan of Octavio Solis for many years,” stated Artistic Director Molly Smith. “Mother Road is a wonderfully original sequel to “The Grapes of Wrath” told from a contemporary point of view. This is a powerful story about land, family and survival which rocks the characters’ world – and ours.

Cedric Lamar, an acting company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the past six seasons, who has played roles in a diverse spectrum of theatre including Oklahoma!, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Wiz, and Hamlet joins Frontmezzjunkies to discuss Mother Road and what that particular road trip from Oregon to Arena has been like for the actor, as he reprises the role as James, the friend of Martin.

Mother-Road-by-Owen-Smith

What was your first response to this play and your role? Did you have a lot of connection to Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”? And how did it layer up for you in theme and style?

CL: My first contact with Mother Road was being a part of a staged reading of it for the Latinx Play Project at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, and I was immediately floored by its relevance, its gorgeous, sharp poetry, and the hum of both knowing pain and unthinkable hope that was vibrating throughout the room as we read and performed it. After working on it for 3 wonderful days and feeling how moved both audience and performers were as we presented our work, I knew that if there was ever a chance to be a part of a full production that I would drop anything and everything to speak those words again.

Not having a deep relationship with “The Grapes of Wrath” until reading it and doing research for this play, I was struck by how Octavio Solis, our playwright, was able to capture and mirror so much of Steinbecks’s aura, while also creating this entirely new piece that doesn’t mimic, but tells its own story with its own style, and dances to its own rhythm.

What was it like for you taking on the role of James at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival? Particularly in comparison to the other roles you played there, or want to play in your future?

CL: I’ve been fortunate to play a wide range of roles during my six seasons at OSF, but playing the role of James was the first time that I truly had the opportunity to deliver long poetic passages, helping the language to sing and soar. James has a particular way with language in that there’s an effortless joy in the way he can turn a phrase. He is also one of the largest engines of love, acceptance, and fortitude in the play, so to fill the space with his positive energy each night was a wonderful task to take on for an 8 month run. I think that James’ inclination to tell things in the most poetic way has been the perfect preparation for my next role at OSF this summer as Ulysses in Black Odyssey, where I will again have to balance the intimate and the epic, with challenging text that has the ability to both entertain and inspire.

Director Bill Rauch (Broadway’s All The Way) describes Mother Road as a play “born out of a remarkable road trip that Octavio Solis undertook in 2013 with the Steinbeck National Center.” “In traveling the exact same route that the Joads took from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to the migrant farmworker camp in Weedpatch, California, Solis opened his eyes and ears and heart to how things have and haven’t changed in the 80 years since John Steinbeck captured our nation’s class-rooted divisions in his celebrated novel. Solis’s work is rooted in the same moral outrage about economic injustice that makes “The Grapes of Wrath” a beloved American classic. The play proposed the inevitability of the diverse new American family that draws parallels between who we have been and who we are becoming.”

How has Mother Road opened your eyes? What do you think are the important themes that leap out for you from playing your role in this play? And the play in general? How does this story reflect those ideas for you?

CL: I feel that one of the most important themes in the play is forgiveness. Forgiving one’s self is the first part of the process of forgiving others, and it’s very difficult to separate the two. James, like others in the play, gets to look at the sum total of the good and bad decisions he’s made in his life, and has the chance to make a new and more sustainable choice going forward. James is also fiercely connected to Mother Earth, and is innately aware of all the joys and pitfalls of humanity’s constant effort to control her. While we all know that climate change is real, he takes it very personally in a way that’s both sobering and refreshing. So another important theme that arises out of the combination of those two is asking Mother Earth to forgive us and what we’ve done to her, and beginning to make our amends by taking care of the land that we inherit, and tending our own gardens as best we can.

How has the experience of taking this play from Oregon to Arena fed your experience of the play and your role?

CL: We’re very excited to share our story with audiences here at Arena Stage. It feels right that a play that ultimately celebrates diversity, brings attention to the plight of underrepresented farming communities, migrant workers, and asks if citizenship is really what makes us American, is coming to the nation’s capital during an election year. And while the effects of climate change are different in DC than in Oregon (fire/smoke season is a very real and scary thing on the west coast), we’re all dealing with it in some way or another (or will be soon), so what James has to say about the consequences of our actions still resonates, but now he gets to be heard in the town that has the power to do something about it on a global scale.

Tell me about James? And what does he mean to you and to America especially during these particular times we live in?

CL: One of the things that I love about James is that without being an evangelist, he holds his own unique faith system and offers it to those who he feels may be in need of healing. He is still on the path of his own reformation, so he doesn’t speak in absolutes or with an all-knowing tone, and is still constantly amazed how the universe can speak for itself if we’re willing enough to listen. I think that his ability to listen is lesson that all Americans could learn from during these volatile and blaring times.

Tell me a little what it was like to go on this road trip with this play and with director Bill Rauch?

CL: After 12 seasons as artistic director, Mother Road was the last main stage production that Bill directed at OSF, so it’s been a very special process that we all feel very lucky that we’ve gotten the opportunity to extend it even longer. It’s always a super collaborative room working with Bill, and this is no different considering that we’re re-staging the show in the round that was originally created for a proscenium thrust, with five new actors in less than two weeks. Fun times!

What has been the most challenging part of this process for you?

CL: I must say that working on Mother Road for a full calendar year so far with more to come, has been one of the smoothest and most rewarding experiences that I’ve had in the theatre. Of course when you do a show well over a hundred times as we do out at OSF (and then we’ll tack on another 30 or so here at Arena) there’s the challenge of keeping the journey alive and fresh, but fortunately that was never a problem. I think because the language is so engaging and so much of it is shared between the entire cast as chorus members, that it naturally keeps us in the moment, not looking too far ahead or dwelling in the past. There’s a great responsibility that we collectively share to tell the story to the best of our abilities each chance we get, because it’s an important story and each audience deserves the opportunity to be deeply moved and find what resonates about it within them as we all did when we first came to it. So I think one of the most challenging aspects has been not being able to understand how each audience is impacted after the show. During the handful of talk backs that I did after the show in Ashland, there was such a wide range of experiences that people had during the show, where different audience members felt seen or had strong reactions to a particular section or character depending where they themselves land in the socioeconomic/cultural landscape. The play always generates fascinating conversation, and I wish I could’ve been a part of more of them, as it’s these conversations that remind us during show one hundred and counting, why the art we create is so important.

The most rewarding?

CL: Because the main framing device of the play is that it’s a road trip, there’s always something naturally satisfying as we start to round the corner towards the end of the journey. You can feel it in the audience, you can feel it onstage, and you can feel it in the text. I think that there will always be a “road trip” genre of art (film, novel, song, theatre, etc.), because it’s such a unique thrill to be on a moving adventure, and there’s something undeniably rewarding as you inch closer and closer toward your goal. In the final big push towards the end of our emotional trek, you can feel the solidarity of everyone in the room and it’s really wonderful.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me. Tell me how it feels to bring this story to DC, as you look into your future? What is in store for Mother Road and Cedric Lamar?

CL:  I can’t wait for the audiences here in DC to experience Mother Road! I’ve been here once before (Pericles at the Folger Theatre in 2015) and really appreciated how intelligent and compassionate the theatre goers are here, ready to devour anything that speaks to what it is to be American. I think they will have quite a meal on their hands with this one! I’m not exactly sure what’s next for Mother Road, but I hope that at some point there are productions in both Oklahoma and the Central Valley of California. I’m very curious how it will be received in the regions that inspired the entire piece, and have both been going through their own unique challenges in the farming community. As for me, I’m headed back to OSF for the 2020 season to play Ulysses in Black Odyssey, and then I’ll be excitedly moving back to NYC after 6 years away. I’ve learned and grown in many different ways during that time, and it’ll be interesting to say the least to return to the city I called home for over a decade and track how I’ve changed as I pursue new and bigger goals.

Tickets for Mother Road are on sale now. For information on savings programs such as pay-your-age tickets, student discounts, Southwest Nights and hero’s discounts, visit arenastage.org/tickets/savings-programs.

Tickets may be purchased online at arenastage.org, by phone at 202-488-3300 or at the Sales Office at 1101 Sixth Street, SW, D.C.

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