- Mama Hated Diesels
Meet Joe Six-Pack, the oft-cited character who has become the American du jour in our current zeitgeist. Prominent in today's sociopolitical discourse, his name has become a rallying cry for the populist movement in the culture war raging between Main Street and Wall Street. As the hardworking, hard-living Everyman, Joe is the construction worker, the farmer, the cop on the beat. And in the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) debut of Mama Hated Diesels, Joe is the "white knight of the highway"—the American trucker.
Co-created by Tony-nominated collaborators Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, Mama Hated Diesels is a musical monology with a compiled score of twenty-one trucker-themed songs by more than thirty songwriters, ranging from Merle Haggard to Kris Kristofferson. Drawing upon actual interviews, author/director Myler and co-author/music director Wheetman theatricalized the plight and pluck of the American trucker, bringing to the stage a lively ensemble of four nameless "truckers" (played by Brad Bellamy, Kathleen Brady, Mike Hartman, and Charles Weldon) and two "wives" (Jan Leslie [End Page 118] Harding and Jeanne Paulsen). In its world premiere, DCTC's Mama was frequently engaging, compassionate, and tinged with wry humor; conversely, the work also veered into trite, romanticized reductionism.
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Representing the latter was the simplistic nature of the libretto and kid-glove treatment given the overall production. Overlooking an American climate rife with anger and blame, the jokey, sentimental atmosphere of Mama seemed curiously devoid of raw, unvarnished human behavior. Although Myler and Wheetman's reported aim was to look "under the hood" of the American trucker, the folksy, familiar anecdotes delivered onstage often reduced their talebearers to safe and predictable clichés, negating any deeper investigation into their complicated, conflicted "Joe" personas. Accordingly, Mama repeatedly morphed into melodrama as the characters disparaged and bemoaned non-trucking Others (e.g., hostile, insensitive authorities and "citizen" drivers), making them easy villains in a scenario of interstate turf wars. Yet the homilies occasionally provided potent social commentary, along with opportunities for the talented DCTC actors to humanize their otherwise one-dimensional archetypes. For example, in a poignant group lamentation, an elderly Hartman emotionally recounted the demoralizing move from thirty years of truck ownership to schlepping for an impersonal trucking corporation; and Weldon decried the satellite tracking systems that treat truckers like "clones," while Harding plaintively concluded that there is "no more courtesy" in today's industry. Such sentiments offered glimpses of a relevant theme: the diminishment of Joe, the worker who built America by the sweat of his brow and toiled to achieve the American Dream, only to be devalued and discarded in an increasingly exploitative corporatist culture.
But any real sense of righteous anger or corporate / class warfare in the production was undercut by the cuddly nature of each character's complaint and the quickness with which it was chuckled away. If the Other is simplistically positioned as Mama's villain, the "trucker" (and "wife") is similarly and sentimentally hailed as the stoic, whimsical, heart-of-gold, highway-smart hero. On the DCTC stage, darker topics such as misogyny, drug abuse, and racism were given drive-by treatments by the ensemble, and a note of levity punctuated any troubling anecdote. As a tough-as-nails lady trucker, Brady comically boasted of "sneaking" behind her husband's back to get her license and besting other dubious male drivers. As a husband and father, Bellamy casually mentioned his quick victory over amphetamine abuse, only to later revel in a jovial account of "lot lizards"—the prostitutes who haunt the truck stops. Most telling was the joking manner in which African American Weldon related the tale of driving through Wyoming while hearing, over the radio, another trucker voice surprise at his inability to "find a nigger" in the territory. After Weldon and his young black driving partner radioed back that, "their...