Pioneering African-American playwright Theodore Ward’s 1937 political melodrama Big White Fog opened at the Almeida last week (17 May 2007, previews from 11 May) with critics commending its performers while questioning its “creakily” written occasionally “didactic” script.

The play is set in Chicago’s South Side during the 1920s and 1930s and was first produced in New York by Ward’s Negro Playwrights’ Company. Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough directs an emsemble cast including Danny Sapani, Jenny Jules, Tony Armatrading, Novello Nelson, Clint Dyer, Tunji Kasim, Guga Mbatha-Raw and Lenora Crichlow in what is the first-ever European production.

Big White Fog sees Labourer Victor Mason (Sapani) fighting to keep his family together as his devotion to Marcus Garvey’s separatist Back to Africa movement clashes with the family’s pursuit of the American Dream and his salesman brother-in-law, Daniel (Armatrading), advocates beating the white system by joining it.

Critics were pleased to see more than 20 of “the best of British black actors” in action even if, as a result, some of the characters remained “sketchy”.

  • Michael Coveney for (four stars) – “A political melodrama, a missing document in the black stage history of America, an ensemble acting opportunity for the best of British black actors: Michael Attenborough’s superb production of Theodore Ward’s 1937 play Big White Fog is a major event. Admittedly the play, set in Chicago’s South Side in the 1920s and moving rapidly into the Depression years in the last act, is creakily written and comes across as a combination between Clifford Odets on a bad day and an old-style Unity Theatre Marxist-Leninist tract. But there is real vigour in the performance, and a lot of more than just interesting historical information in the argument. Sapani’s magnificent Victor maintains a brutish integrity throughout, while Armatrading’s Daniel enjoys the good life and a convincing optimism until the bad times engulf the community in a tidal rush.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “It's the acting that impresses me most about this revival of Theodore Ward's 1937 play. It confirms what the work at the Tricycle and Young Vic has already shown: we have a wide range of black actors capable of doing justice to this kind of American realistic drama. In truth, the performances sometimes camouflage the flaws in the writing. What comes across in Michael Attenborough's fine production is the vigorous intensity of South Side family life. It may not be a flawless play, but it offers an exact record of its times and reminds us of the large pool of black acting talent in this country.”

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) – “Big White Fog is not a great play. It has such a large cast that some of the 20 characters inevitably feel a bit sketchy. The actors do their best with the creaky material. At half time, I felt a little bit preached at and could quite well understand how this worthy but didactic play had not previously been performed in Europe.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “I doubt if there exists any more enthralling or important play about the struggle of blacks to survive in pre-Second World War America than Big White Fog. It is that rare dramatic thing: a drama which extends one's awareness of life, resounding with justified anger and passion. No one who wishes to understand the struggle for survival faced by black Americans in the racist Twenties and Depression Years will care to miss it. Michael Attenborough's heartfelt but sometimes too statuesque production marks the re-emergence of Theodore Ward, a black socialist dramatist, whose plays are unknown here and neglected in America, where his career was aborted by McCarthyite black-listing. Ward and his theatrical canon may now be rescued from the doldrums.”

  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (four stars) – “Among the large and splendid cast, several are particularly notable – Jenny Jules as Ella, moving from careful repression to desperate appeasement to white-hot rage to stony disdain; Clint Dyer's sweet-talking Uncle Percy, heartbreaking in his descent to bewildered alcoholism; Novella Nelson, a matriarch as grand as she is flawed; and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is touching as the vulnerable Wanda. Compelling as history, the play is less satisfying as theatre. Ward takes up too many personal and political themes, and sometimes assembles them clumsily. Yet Big White Fog evokes nostalgia as well as pity. Here is a world in which children are respectful to elders, in which three generations of a family live in a large house, and in which a black man who disparages Jews is reproved by another for imitating the white man's prejudice. The production also suggests what is missing from our stages: where are the contemporary plays to show us such a full and passionate picture of black life?”

    - by Malcolm Rock