Migrant Mother by Michael Symmons Roberts

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BBC Radio 3, 28 November 2010
Inspired by Dorothea Lange's famous photograph of Florence Thompson, taken in California in 1936, Migrant Mother told the story of Dorothea (Teresa Gallagher), who worked on behalf of the government to chronicle - both in words and pictures - the experiences of migrants (or okies) during the Great Depression. The play comprises two parallel stories: that of the photographer and her team visiting different camps; and the experiences of Florence Thompson (Anne Wittman) and her family, as they are forced to quit their farm in Oklahoma and move further and further westwards in a desperate search for work and shelter. For most of the time they stay in makeshift camps, where the conditions are absolutely foul, and where a crust of bread is treated as a delicacy. The okies not only have to cope with the vagaries of the weather (that deprived them of adequate crops), but also the jealousies of the local population, who believe that the okies leeched off their already over-farmed land. As a result the okies are herded from place to place like cattle with little regard for their feelings.
In stark contrast the researchers lead basically comfortable lives: all of them originate from the middle class, and embrace liberal, somewhat patronizing values towards their subjects. Eventually Dorothy comes to understand the basic futility of her task; she can never empathize with the okies, as she can always climb into her car and return to her bourgeois life. She decides to leave the project, but is eventually persuaded to stay by her enthusiasti boss Paul (Ian Porter), who believes that he is undertaking valuable work on the state's behalf and should see it through to the end.
Dorothy's futile quest for 'the truth' about the okies' lives is set against the beliefs of tyro scholar Henry (Allen Lidkey), who has little sympathy for his subjects but infinite respect for Paul. Henry and Dorothy do not get on, but eventually develop a grudging respect for one another; their world-views are similar despite their protestations of difference.
Dorothy's doubts about her work are confirmed in a climactic confrontation at the end of the play. Florence is reluctant to be photographed, but she eventually agrees; however she treats Dorothy as someone who cannot really understand the significance of the photograph. It is one of the ironies of history that the photograph has become one of the iconic images of the Great Depression (it is reproduced on the Radio 3 website at ( The photograph purports to be a 'realistic' depiction of a woman undergoing the hardships of the depression, but actually turns out to be a posed representation.
Written by a British dramatist and recorded in Manchester, Migrant Mother offered a riveting recreation of one of American history's darkest periods. The director was Susan Roberts.