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 – never seen in Europe before – 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.
The play was first produced in New York by the Negro Playwrights’ Company whose co-founders included Ward himself, Paul Robeson and the poet Langston Hughes. It is an obvious precursor of August Wilson’s Pennsylvania chronicles, with a central ideological rift between a heavily politicised labourer, Victor Mason (Danny Sapani), and his sharp-suited salesman brother-in-law, Daniel Rogers (Tony Armatrading), who advocates beating the white system by joining it.
Victor, on the other hand, is an officer in Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line movement, forging a link to the homeland in Africa with, they hope, wide-ranging agrarian reforms in the States. Victor’s children play a key role in the development of the argument: Lester (Tunji Kasim) wins a scholarship only to have it rescinded because of his colour; Wanda (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) earns much needed cash for the family as a secret prostitute with white clients, flaunting her status in a new seal skin coat.
One of Lester’s school friends, a nice, quiet Jewish boy called Nathan Piszer (Aaron Brown), points out that Garvey’s policies – the root of the Black Power movement in the 1960s – are a pipe-dream, arguing for assimilation, unity with the white majority on common ground. And after Victor himself is let down by his hero -- Garvey was accused of fraud in 1923 – you sense the play drifting away from its own initial radical convictions and settling for an alliance of black and white socialism.
That is the tableau at the end when, in 1932, the family is assailed by debt, plunged into abject poverty and invaded by the bailiffs. Resistance leads to a sudden escalation of violence and tragedy, all of it sardonically observed by Novella Nelson’s wise old grandmother and the increasingly desperate married sisters of Jenny Jules and Susan Salmon. In a stage full of excellent performances, Clint Dyer also stands out as hip dude of an uncle whose descent into helpless alcoholism seems symbolic of one strand of black political defeatism.
Attenborough’s production is handsomely designed by Jonathan Fensom: a large, comfortable living room with a practical staircase, stained glass windows, a rocking chair and that evocative precursor of the gramophone, a Victrola with a conical speaker. 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.
The show is an eye-opener; and what a treat to see the Almeida stage crammed – as it so often has been -- with two dozen actors at the curtain call!