Back in Time: The Grapes of Wrath was part of OETA’s ongoing Back in Time documentary series on Oklahoma history.

Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, OETA win Emmy award for documentary short

A recent Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA) documentary short is winning acclaim for its examination of one of the worst periods in Oklahoma history, as depicted in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Back in Time: The Grapes of Wrath won a 2015 regional Emmy award last month in the Arts & Entertainment — Program/Series/Special category, beating out competitors from as far away as Denver.

“This honor really embodies the energy and dynamism of Oklahoma City’s growing creative community and, specifically, its creative collaboration,” said Donald Jordan, artistic director of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre (CityRep), which joined the project.

“It’s a great thrill to win the award, especially since we’re a smaller market, a smaller organization,” said Bill Perry, OETA’s deputy director and documentary executive producer. “It’s not easy to build a great TV program based on a book.”

Coming to life

Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel instantly became the seminal depiction of Dust Bowl survival when it was published in 1939. The tale followed the Joad family from their failed farm in Oklahoma to agricultural labor camps in California. Steinbeck sought to draw attention to the plight of poor laborers who were exploited by powerful figures — unfeeling bankers, big landowners and abusive law enforcement.

OETA’s 27-minute documentary on the novel, written and produced by Robert Burch, featured historians and literary experts. But OETA also relied on theater to bring the novel’s characters to life.

Documentarians incorporated key scenes from CityRep’s 2014 staging of the play The Grapes of Wrath. Harry Parker directed the Tony Award-winning stage adaptation by Frank Galati. CityRep’s production, in partnership with Oklahoma City University, was an official component of the National Steinbeck Center’s 75th anniversary of the book.

“We used the play as our visual representation of the story,” Perry said. “It gives the book life and helps viewers understand why the story is so important.”

The documentary includes insights from the actors who portrayed the novel’s best-known characters: Cameron Cobb as Tom Joad, who is eventually inspired to organize against oppression, and Pam Dougherty as Ma Joad, the matriarch who keeps the family together through all its travails.

Okie pride

Back in Time: The Grapes of Wrath was part of OETA’s ongoing Back in Time documentary series on Oklahoma history. Not mentioned in the program was the umbrage many Oklahomans originally took at Steinbeck’s book. They objected to its depiction of the conditions the Joad family fled in southeastern Oklahoma and its portrayal of pitiful “Okies.”

But today, the documentary’s contributors see only resilience in Steinbeck’s characters.

“[The Grapes of Wrath] shows the endurance of people who survived the Dust Bowl and wanted a better life for their family,” Perry said. “There’s a get-it-done attitude among Oklahomans that exists to this day.”

Don Jordan, CityRep artistic director, said the program successfully blended literature, theater, history and music (Sonny Franks as the play’s troubadour incorporated gospel tunes and Woodie Guthrie songs) to create a rich perspective on Steinbeck’s masterpiece.

Print Headline: Dust detail, Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre and OETA join forces to win an Emmy.