Joads' Night Out | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

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Joads' Night Out

A Migrant Family Goes to the Theater


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Like an old turtle crossing a highway, the battered Hudson chugged up and down Halsted Street in search of a parking place. Just when it seemed the family would find no rest, a BMW outside Carlucci's sped off from the curb. Jim Casy thanked the Lord and Tom gently eased the makeshift truck into the narrow space, though not without slightly shortening a protruding Porsche.

"This is it," Ma cried. "The land of hope we been promised after all our terrible troubles!" A homeless man who had been staring open-mouthed at the group suddenly walked up and gave her all his change. "No, Ma," Tom gently chided. "You know there ain't no such place. Hell, 50 years of hard travel shoulda told you that. This place is Chicago."

"So what're we doin' here?"

"Darn it, Ma, ain't you been payin' attention? We hear tell there's a famous the-a-ter company here spending a lot of money from some big corporation just to tell the story of our lives. Hot damn, that sure is a corker!"

Ma spit on an Alfa Romeo. "Land o' Goshen, child, what's so special about us? Why Rose of Sharon and I saw more out-of-luck ragpickers just drivin' up this here Mall-sted Street than any ten dust storms ever blew out of Oklahoma! Looked like hobo heaven." Jim Casy shouted "Amen!" then shyly whispered, "I hear the guy who plays you Tom is a Hollywood director, now don't that beat all to kingdom come?"

Ma suddenly turned and shouted, "Ruthie and Winfield, you stop starin' through them winders! You're makin' them boutique folks nervous--and they's just the kind that loves ta call the cops on Okies. C'mon, everyone, if we keep movin' we won't get in no trouble."

So Ma, Pa, Tom, Al, Rose of Sharon, Connie, Ruthie, Winfield, Jim Casy, and a quietly drinking Uncle John trudged on, elbowing their way past the diners and shoppers until they arrived at their destination.

"Whooey!" shouted Tom. "The Royal-George The-a-ter! This must be where they's impersonatin' us! " Casy looked nervous. "These folks sure dressed up swell just to watch some Okies go through shit." Filing into the lobby, the Joads asked the box-office man how much the tickets cost. After he told them, Ma sort of slumped against a wall, groaning. "Thirty bucks for ten of us! Why, we'd need ta pick a week's worth of oranges to make that!" "No, madam," intoned the clerk. "Thirty dollars is for one ticket." Ma sagged slowly to the floor.

The kindhearted box-office worker was touched by this group of theater lovers who had costumed themselves to resemble the characters in the play. After a hushed conversation on his telephone, he told the clan they could watch the show if they'd agree to mill around onstage looking picturesque and accurate.

But when the excited Joads first saw the stage, they were too shocked to mill. Ma whispered like a tornado, "is that supposed to be our old Hudson? They keep movin' it back and forth and turnin' it around but it still don't go nowhere."

Ruthie and Winfield loved the phony camp fires that burst out of the big stage, and they almost jumped into a water gully that suddenly ran along its edge. "That there piddly thing is supposed to be the Colorader River?" guffawed Connie. Suddenly the actor playing Al took off all his clothes and plunged right in. Connie made Rose of Sharon cover her eyes, but Al laughed his head off and jumped in too. (Later Al made a pass at the actress playing Rose of Sharon but Ma slapped him sideways and told him she was supposed to be his sister.)

Like an old turtle crossing a really big highway, the long play slowly slogged its way across the stage. It made Ma mad to see so many actors just walking around but never getting to say a thing. "It don't feel democratic nohow. But I kind of like this Lois Smith lady who's me. After the show I want to set a spell with her and swap recipes. I kin tell she knows how to grab a cow when she means milk."

During the big second-act rainstorm Pa kept muttering, "There's a goddamn drought goin' on and they're sloppin' around enough water to stop a dust storm . . ."

Meanwhile Tom and Casy were closely watching "Tom" and " Casy." After a while they snuck off to the wings to compare notes. Tom was the first to choke out his thoughts: "Why, I been in a lot of fights, Jim Casy, you know that. But if I ever talked to Ma like that, she'd tan my hide ten kinds of brown. And, I mean I you know I never wanted to hurt no one, but this guy--why the hell is he so doggone angry? He's got more dough than a porkypine has quills." Casy just kept looking down and mumbling, "I sure wish I looked as good as I look."

"Jim," Tom went on, "when them vigilantes killed you for tryin' to organize us workers, I didn't take it for a chance to grab me another jail sentence. I knew the fight we was wagin' wasn't jest for me or even Ma, bless her. I kin unnerstand if a feller loses out to bad luck that he couldn't help none anyhow--but to be hurt by bad people who's got more than they need, why that still makes my blood boil! But this here actor guy makes me seem like just one more bar brawler." Casy just looked down.

The strangest thing was that all the time the Joads were onstage, no matter what they did, the actors didn't seem to see them--and neither did the audience. "All they cares about is them famous film folks," sighed Ma. She started to sob a bit but told Tom it was because she was so plumb tired of never being seen. But she suddenly rallied: "We ain't gonna die out. People is goin' on--changin' a little, maybe, but goin' right on.

The Joads left by the back door. They'd heard there were a lot of jobs available at the--what was it?--Wisdom Bridge Theatre.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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