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Monumental 'Grapes of Wrath' staged in an Oakland basement, by the award winning UBUNTU THEA


It is not quite “Occupy Oakland” perhaps even a bit more powerful than the famous protest is John Steinbeck's classic 1939 GRAPES OF WRATH. The Ubuntu Theater Project has crafted a powerful staging of this Tony Award-winning script by Frank Galati, performed till May 1, at Oakland City Church in Oakland, Ca. Galati is a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre which premiered this adaptation in 1988. This is the second visit of the Joad family to Oakland, TheatreFIRST produced an elegant version a few years back. Director Michael Moran has assembled a cast of 28 actors to stage this epic, and he has a large basement to work within. Tommy Crawford has created new music and chants to add to the texture of this gritty moving production.

Managing Director, Colin Blattel, says “The Ubuntu Theater Project seeks to create a theatrical experience that is affordable to all, socially charged - the Project is committed to a model that brings the highest quality art for a diverse and accessible audience. And that the experience of attending the theater with people who are completely different than yourself feeds the mission of understanding and strengthening the truth that we are all interconnected.” This staging of GRAPES clearly accomplishes that. Ubuntu specializes in site-specific performance, there is something haunting about Oakland City Church’s hollow basement that brings plausibility to this production. Along with the seating arrangement that reminds you of a classroom, the set looks real with the random wood and industrial trash you might find in any church storeroom. As the players find their way to the main floor they gather around a fire in a metal can as Taylor Gonzalez' sound design creates the compelling subtle realness to the Joads' journey from the dust bowl to California.

The journey begins with the paroled, Tom Joad, (William Hartfield) and the lost minister, Jim Casey, (William Thomas Hodgson) meet on the path home. Hartfield and Hodgson are both powerful in these roles playing against the passion of Galati's script. Morna's solid direction doesn’t put all the focus just on his leads the ensemble is just as important. The story stays true to the book as we find the Joad family getting ready for their trip west, Tom's return sets them back for a bit Ma Joad played by the stunning passionate Shannon Veon Kase encourages her family to stay together and continue with their road plan. The featured actors are all excellent -- Pa Joad is played by the admirable Dorian Lockett, ill but textured Grampa is played by local favorite Abe Bernstein, his wife Granma Joad is the spunky Tamar Coh. The costumes by Janet O’Neil are vintage dust bowl, and she made sure the shoes and under dress met the demands of the journey. O’Neil crafted some excellent black robes and simple dresses for the religious camp the family meets, and her clothes on the two young players in the cast are sweet and match the mood of the family's search for a better life.

The other members of the superb cast include Myers Clark as worried Uncle John, Clark is skillful actor and a standout. Francisco Arcila, plays the slow Noah, and Evan Feist, one of the younger members of this cast, is very impressive as the teen Al Joad who flirts with most of the women he meets on the journey. Feist is a talent to watch in this cast, he is matched with Luna Scott-Chung you plays young silent Ruthie. Pregnant Rose of Sharon played by the outstanding Noelle Viñas who carries the main theme of the story in her belly, she shares the role with Christine Jamlig. Erik-Jon Gibson plays her lost coward husband, and manages to bring some likability, especially when the family finds the running river and they all bathe in the life of that water. The two and half hour play moves along nicely because the acting is excellent, but the night I saw the performance the power was on the brink in the basement and the lights failed a few times. I thought this added to the texture of the show and it did not stop the company from giving a powerful performance. The ensembles chorus numbers included a capella, and stomp natural sound that filled that basement and beyond in the east Oakland hills.

The word Ubuntu is from a Zulu Proverb: “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours” or most simply translated as “I am because we are.” The Ubuntu Theater Project believes that as a culture we are not fulfilling our full potential to make lasting and powerful human connections: and, therefore. diminishing our collective human experience and understanding of one another. Moran Co-Artistic and Director of this powerful theatre, said, “we believe in creating a theatrical experience that invigorates and enlivens our interconnectedness that is too often neglected.” He has truly crafted that with this fine production. GRAPES OF WRATH has been extended until May 1st. If you can snag a ticket for closing weekend, I highly recommend this play.

The Ubuntu Theater Project Presents


By Frank Galati, adapted from the John Steinbeck novel,

Directed by Michael Socrates Moran,

Music by Tommy Crawford and Branice McKenzie

Through May 1

Staged at Oakland City Church, 2735 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland Ca.

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermission

Tickets: $15-$35;

Oakland City Church

2735 MacArthur Blvd

Oakland, CA 94602

Photos by Beth Hitchcock

*Quote from creative team from SF Gate writer Lily Janiak

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